Secondary Solution: Scouting Free Agent Cornerback Darius Butler as a Fit for Miami
Due to mounting injuries amongst the starting four in the Miami Dolphins’ secondary, the unit never materialized into the “Legion of Boom” that Byron Maxwell believes to be possible. As it stands currently, the secondary will again feature Reshad Jones, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Byron Maxwell, and Xavien Howard. Reshad Jones is a transcendent talent (if healthy), Byron Maxwell was excellent after the 1st quarter of the season, Xavien Howard showed promise, and Isa Abdul-Quddus was solid in his own right. However, their reliability staying on the field is questionable at best and Miami’s lack of depth in the secondary is among the team’s most exploitable weakness. Both the cornerback and safety positions are in need of improvement, and Darius Butler of the Indianapolis Colts may be the best guy to kill two birds with one stone.
The 30-year-old cornerback/safety has been among the Colts’ most reliable defensive players of the Andrew Luck era. In fact, nobody outside of Pro Bowler Vontae Davis has had more interceptions for the team (13) than Butler (12) over the last 5 years. His four career pick-sixes are also a noteworthy indicator of his playmaking ability. While his relative lack of size (5’10, 188 lbs) has hampered his ability to cover receivers near the hashes, he has excelled as a slot corner since coming to Indianapolis after stints in Carolina and New England.
However, as capable as Butler is at the slot cornerback position it’s his ability as a safety and his overall versatility that are his most valuable traits. Last season, the Indianapolis Colts’ secondary was decimated with injuries at both the cornerback and safety positions. Butler, who was moved around the defensive backfield throughout the season, played nearly every position that a defensive back can be asked to play. In addition to grading out the year as one of the league’s most dangerous slot cornerbacks (5th rated FA cornerback per PFF), he played so well at safety that he is considering moving to the position full-time. Whatever the case, his ability in coverage (18th among NFL defensive backs per PFF) is undeniable and could potentially improve the Dolphins’ beleaguered unit.
As said previously, Butler’s greatest asset is his versatility. His skills in coverage, man or zone, are among the best in the entire NFL. On one snap he can cover a receiver in the slot man-to-man and then in the next play deep safety. While he isn’t built to cover receivers on the outside due to his rather diminutive build, he is among the most reliable nickel defensive backs in the entire NFL. In addition to rarely allowing big plays, he uses his instincts and high football IQ to make plays on the ball from anywhere on the field. His ability to make plays on receivers close to the line of scrimmage is well above average, as he seldom whiffs on one-on-one tackles.
His uncanny ability to read the quarterback’s eyes from anywhere on the field has made him a natural playmaker as a lurking defensive back at both nickel corner and free safety. While he often makes plays jumping routes with sticky man coverage, it is his great understanding of offensive tendencies that have made him so dangerous in the middle of the field.
His excellent hands in addition to his speed (4.41 40 yard dash) allow him to bait the quarterback into a false sense of security, as in this athletic interception of a Trevor Simian screen pass.
If you need more proof of his excellence as a ballhawk, Greg, just take a gander at this beut of an interception.
In Darius Butler’s first game as a full-time free safety, on the road in Green Bay, he manages to read Aaron Rodgers’ eyes and makes an excellent diving catch for the football. You can see him diagnose what the play is, read where Aaron Rodgers wants to go with it, position himself out of Rodgers’ view, and make the diving catch on the seam route all in the span of a few seconds. Few players in the NFL can manage to consistently make plays like this on a consistent basis from multiple positions, and Butler is one of them.
As solid as Butler is as a deep safety and nickel defensive back, he is hardly immune to making mistakes when the play is made nearer to the line of scrimmage.
His playing style as a lurking, coverage type player saps some of his ability as an enforcer at the line of scrimmage. He is prone to taking poor angles against running backs or receivers that catch the ball just a few yards down field.
The Colts rarely put him in this position, as Clayton Geathers and Mike Adams usually handled the role, but his mediocre ability in diagnosing running plays and lack of size make him somewhat of a liability on running plays. However, if he is used only on passing downs or in coverage, this chink in his armor is for the most part nullified.
Additionally, he plays both corner and safety very deep down the field. While this limits plays down field, and has put him in position to make more than one touchdown saving tackle, it is indicative of his relative lack of ability as both a press corner and a run-support safety.
His only other weakness has nothing to do with his play on the field, at least on tape. Butler, while not exactly “injury prone,” has missed time with nagging injuries in the past. As he gets older (currently 30), this could potentially be a more significant issue. While he could be an excellent starting safety in the future, I believe him to be best used as a passing down role-player in order to preserve his health whether he be a Miami Dolphin or an Indianapolis Colt next season.
As you can see, I believe Darius Butler to be an excellent defensive back in his limited role. His versatility as both a slot corner and free safety would be excellent for the perpetually injured Miami Dolphins’ secondary. Additionally, his excellence in coverage would allow Miami to get creative with Reshad Jones being able to play closer to the line of scrimmage as an enforcer as he’s done in the past. The Colts did this with Clayton Geathers, making him a pseudo-linebacker, while Butler stayed over the top. For the short span that both defensive backs were healthy, the Colts’ defense played significantly better as both had career years. While his impact is limited as a role player, improving depth on defense could help Miami beat the Patriots and Steelers of the world when injuries begin to mount. Whatever the case, Miami should take a hard look at the Colts’ veteran who could help change the defensive identity of a team just a few pieces away from Super Bowl contention.