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Seahawks on the Precipice: Deon Butler

In our ongoing series looking at the Seahawks' 2nd and 3rd-year players, I'm sticking with wide receivers for a moment, moving from Golden Tate to Deon Butler. Now as much as I like Golden Tate, that's probably how little I like Deon Butler. Part of that is how much we had to give up. We'd lost our original 3rd round pick to the Bears to get Max Unger, and gave up a 5th, 7th and future 3rd to go back in and get Butler, continuing our streak of not using our own 3rd round picks (I think Mebane was the last time we did) and setting up a streak of losing future thirds. This is only one of many ugly facets of the 2009 draft, one I suspect will not be well-remembered a few years down the line.

Butler was a pretty Ruskellian prospect, playing at the top of the Penn State depth chart for four years and breaking Bobby Engram's college receptions record along the way. But what's more, Butler also had a healthy YPA in college and followed it up with impressive combine numbers, specifically a 4.38 40-yard dash, fourth amongst wide receivers. A 5'10 180 lbs WR who runs a fast 40'? That's your prototypical undersized speedster, and that's where the second part of my lack of fondness comes from: I'm not a huge fan of the undersized speedster prototype. When it works, it's great, though you have to have not only a WR with the right skills but also a system set up to utilize them. We lacked the latter, but does Butler even have the first? People are wont to forget that for every DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace that pops out of a draft we have a Dexter Jackson to balance it out. Titus Young was probably my least favorite highly touted WR prospect coming out of this draft, though he landed in a good situation.

Still, it's not like the prototype can't work at all, even a too-small-to-believe receiver like Mike Thomas is looking like he can be more than productive for the Jaguars (I was a big fan of his potential as a draft steal, oh well, at least he ended up going to my AFC team). Deon Butler has not done a lot, particularly not for an early-round Ruskell pick which tend more towards the polished (and often low-ceiling) guys that can produce quick. The lack of production in his rookie season can largely be attributed to his rather bizarre role of running deep and then not getting targeted at all. Gregg Knapp probably envisioned him in a decoy role though I don't see how that works if the defenders pretty much know the decoy will never be targeted.

His second season was statistically more impressive than his rookie season, with catches going from 15 to 36, yards from 175 to 385 and TDs from 0 to 4. When Deion Branch was traded to the Patriots, Deon Butler was slotted into the starting wide receiver position somewhat by default, before losing the job to Ben Obamanu and eventually ending up on IR with a rather gruesome leg injury. "Starter" is not always a meaningful term, but Butler played the majority of snaps from the Chicago game in week 6 to the Giants game in week 9, and then our front office more or less moved on from that experiment.

Danny has looked back extensively at Deon Butler here and here. To refresh myself on the player a bit, I rewatched the footage of his performance in week 10 at Arizona, where he played 33 of the 73 offensive snaps, 22 of which were in "11" personnel (3 WR sets with 1 TE and 1 RB), which I considered interesting as it is how I expect him to be used next season, as his shot as a starting wide receiver has - at least for now - come and gone.

Was this game a prototypical showcase of how he should be used? Frith no. Our very first drive opens up with the Hawks in 11 personnel with Butler as a split end and Ben Obomanu lined up next to him. At the snap, Obomanu releases to block the cornerback and Butler catches a screen pass from Hasselbeck. Obomanu blows his block and Butler is tackled by the corner after two yards. This game continues as a cavalcade of highlighting Butler's flaws, with a short pass on 3rd and 17 where Hasselbeck overthrows Butler by a few feet, an underthrown pass on 1st and 10 where Butler has to come back for the ball and is then immediately run down, and another 1 yard dump off pass where Butler is immediately run down, that one described in Danny's write-up.

It's one particular game but it's a highlight of what Deon Butler can not do. He can not go up there and fight for the ball. He can not consistently gain yards after catching the ball, lacking the shiftiness or power to get past tackles. He can not fight through press corners, which presumably is a big part of why he's played out of the slot so much. The must frustrating part of watching Deon Butler play is seeing him tossed around like a ragdoll by defenders.

What can he do? An example of that, too, is readily available from that game in the form of a 63 yard touchdown, also described by Danny in his story. It's 1st and 10, a 2-WR set, Obomanu lined up next to Butler. From what I can tell, John Carlson runs a curl, Obomanu runs a cross and Butler a post route, meant to space out the defenders nicely and forcing them to run behind the receivers as everything moves from right to left. The play takes a long time to develop, and Hasselbeck has to move around in the pocket to buy time, before throwing to Butler who has three defenders vaguely near him but none actually covering him. This is followed by what I can only describe as "sheer hilarity" as all three defenders - all between Butler and the endzone initially - overplay towards the sideline and none of them able to recover before Butler redirects and runs the final 10 yards towards a touchdown.

Now as this is a play that took a lot of stuff going right for us (failure to get to Hasselbeck and the ineptitude of the Cardinals secondary/linebacker in coverage) it's not necessarily the best example. Furthermore, it highlights how Butler's straightline speed doesn't translate as well to the field as you would expect from a speedster, as even the linebacker was close to him as he caught the ball. Since he can't outjump or outfight coverage you hope for him to be running alone when the ball comes his way, not have three guys on him. To me, Butler rarely seems that fast. But what he does do is run routes well, and that more than his speed is what gives him the separation he needs. On the other hand, a lot of his route-running knowledge comes from short and middle passing which he could excell at in college but is simply too small to battle defenders for in the NFL. It's an unfortunate combo that makes him less than ideal, but is he a lost cause?

Worst-case scenario: The Seahawks continue to use Butler in end-arounds, out of the slot and in the short passing game. He's terrible at all of it. He never fully recovered from his injury and has lost the speed necessary to fulfil the one role he would be good at.

Best-case scenario: Butler is in a regular rotation with Obomanu opposite Williams and heavily used in multi-WR sets. (fill in strong-armed QB here) utilizes Butler's skills and targets him frequently on deep routes, forcing the defenses to take the home-run threat seriously and spread out more.

My take: I don't have particularly high hopes for Butler. That's to say, I don't see him getting a high volume of snaps compared to Obomanu or Williams or even Tate down the line. His arsenal is too limited for that. But if you take those limitations into account rather than having him play primarily out of the slot (though it's certainly an option when the favorable matchup is there) or even run unfortunate-looking end-arounds you've got a better chance of getting somewhere with him. I'm thinking Butler will see very little playing time outside of 3+-WR sets, but (depending on who plays quarterback) to be utilized more as a viable threat in the long passing game, running post, corner and comeback routes to free himself from coverage. Given proper utilization, I don't see his reception numbers (36 last season) going up much, but I do hope he increases his average from a measly 10.7 to something closer to 15-16 yards. Like Tate, I think Butler is someone who potentially will suffer in his development if Hasselbeck comes back. In this case not because of route running problems but because to properly utilize Butler the QB needs to not just have a strong arm but also to be able to buy time for Butler's longer routes.