Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Vernon Butler has a 7-foot wingspan, which comes in handy when he’s changing light bulbs, grabbing something off the top shelf of the pantry and batting footballs, which Butler did again during Friday’s practice.
Butler, the first-round pick in 2016, joined Julius Peppers last season as the only players in franchise history to block two field goals in a season.
The two blocks – against New Orleans and Atlanta – were among the few highlights for Butler during an injury-plagued rookie season in which he missed five games with a high ankle sprain and was inactive another game.
Now healthy and with a year of experience under his belt, the player known as “Big Vern” says he’s expecting a big breakthrough in his second season.
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During an interview Friday afternoon at Wofford, Butler had a message for any critics or opponents who might sleep on the 30th overall pick in last year’s draft.
“If they’re sleeping, I’m going to wake them up,” he said. “This year is going to be way different than last year, I can tell you right now.”
The book on Butler when he was coming out of Louisiana Tech was that he was a big, athletic lineman whose college production didn’t match his potential.
Butler (6-4, 330) managed only five sacks in four seasons at Louisiana Tech, although his college coaches attributed that to the Bulldogs’ three-man front that allowed opponents to double-team Butler.
But when Butler finished his first NFL season with pretty pedestrian numbers – 11 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four quarterback pressures – it was natural to wonder if the pre-draft question marks surrounding Butler were accurate.
“I’m a better football player than what I put out last year,” Butler said. “It’s going to be a way better year.”
Butler says he didn’t want to use his ankle injury as an excuse, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the lost time clearly hurt Butler’s development. Butler took Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian for his first career sack in Week 1, but sprained his ankle two weeks later against Minnesota and missed the next five games.
Butler seemed to lack explosiveness when he returned in November. But he didn’t lose his knack for getting his long arms up in the air and blocking kicks, a skill he first displayed in college despite being what he called average height.
“But the arms help out a lot,” Butler said. “It helps the team out, taking points away from the other team and getting the ball back in pretty good field position.”
Butler wants to make more of an impact on defense this year. Butler has been busy during the first week of training camp as the Panthers work nose tackle Star Lotulelei back slowly from offseason shoulder surgery.
“It’s been really good for Vern,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Because he’s getting an awful lot of reps with the 1s and the 2s.”
Securing the future
The Panthers locked up Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short with a five-year, $80 million extension in March, but have yet to sign Lotulelei to a long-term deal. Former general manager Dave Gettleman exercised Lotulelei’s fifth-year option, but he is not signed beyond this season.
If Butler has a breakout season, it could influence the front office’s thinking with Lotulelei.
Butler’s not worried about any of that. But it was clear during a brief interview Friday, he wants to prove to the team and the Panthers’ fan base that he was worthy of that first-round pick.
“I can play in the NFL,” Butler said. “If I keep on working hard, I can be (a player) everybody’s talking about. I’m working every day to get better.”