About 10 minutes after the Panthers wrapped up the first of two practices Friday during their rookie minicamp, first-round defensive tackle Vernon Butler was being counseled by defensive line coach Eric Washington.
That figures to be a familiar sight through the rest of the spring and into the summer.
Washington was working on Butler’s swim pass-rush move after the Friday morning session, trying to get the former Louisiana Tech star to keep his hands and arms tighter to his body to maintain better leverage against NFL offensive linemen.
“We were just working on hands,” Butler said afterward. “College stuff carries over, have to break bad habits.”
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Butler’s life has been fairly hectic since the Panthers took him with the 30th overall pick two weeks ago. He’s been back and forth a couple times between Charlotte and Ruston, La., where he was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season.
Butler’s transition to the NFL became official Friday, when in a two-hour span he signed his four-year contract and took the practice field for the first time as a professional.
Butler’s deal is worth about $8.4 million, according to industry estimates, and includes a $4.3 million signing bonus.
But the 6-foot-4, 323-pounder known as “Big Vern” in college says he didn’t feel any added pressure to make plays Friday to prove he’s worthy of the first-round pick and accompanying contract.
“I feel like with my ability, that’s going to happen,” he said.
Despite Butler’s relatively low sack numbers (five) during four seasons against Conference USA competition, Washington does not view Butler as a particularly raw prospect.
Washington said all rookies – including starring defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei – face a similar, somewhat steep learning curve when they make the jump to the pros.
“It’s fast,” Washington said. “They’re trying to learn a new language and they don’t even know where the lunchroom is.”
Butler looks like he hasn’t missed many meals. That’s not to say he’s fat. There’s just a lot of him, which is what Panthers offensive line coach Ray Brown observed the first time he met Butler during the pre-draft process.
“That’s a big man, it really is,” Brown said. “For a guy that long, lean, athletic and who can use his length to play inside, he’s going to create some separation.”
Brown knows big. He played 19 NFL seasons as a 6-5, 318-pound offensive guard and tackle.
“I thought he was a defensive end. He looks like a basketball (player). He’s put together well,” Brown said of Butler. “He’s impressive. He’s long. Good length. You can envision him getting (offensive linemen) extended and getting off of them.”
Brown, whose official combine measurement was 6-3 and 5/8 inches, said he’s been working out with Louisiana Tech’s strength coach since the draft, trying to keep off extra pounds.
“We had to go to (pre-draft) visits and stuff like that, different places,” Butler said. “But I feel like I stayed in shape.”
Butler has yet to meet or speak with Short and Lotulelei, but says defensive end Mario Addison and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis all reached out to him after the Panthers drafted him with the penultimate pick in the first round.
Butler says he wants to improve as a pass-rusher. Washington said the Panthers’ scheme should help hasten the process. Louisiana Tech ran a lot of three-man fronts when opponents were in passing situations, which meant Butler drew a lot of double-team blocks.
Washington said in the Panthers’ four-man fronts, Butler will be lined up in the gap rather than head-up across from an offensive lineman as he often was in college. He also said that should help Butler in pressuring the quartback and getting sacks.
Rather than Butler’s size, Washington was struck by his quiet, composed demeanor.
“The one thing that stood out to me was just the poise. He’s a very even-keeled guy. He focuses very intently,” Washington said. “There’s a lot of poise there and that’s going to serve him well in this type of environment, where things can get pretty chaotic.”
Butler uses an economy of words, so his conversations with Washington will be fairly one-sided. But Butler made it clear when Washington speaks – as he did following Friday’s first practice – he’ll be listening.
“He knows what he’s talking about. And gets after it,” Butler said of his new position coach. “I’m glad I’m here.”