Inside the Panthers

Film study: Panthers DT Vernon Butler disruptive, has room to grow

Newest Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Vernon Butler said at the NFL scouting combine that he feels most comfortable at the 3-technique, a defensive line position that puts him on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard.

After watching three of his games from his 2015 season via, I’d have to agree.

Butler, the 30th selection in the first round Thursday in the NFL draft, was a handful during his senior year at Louisiana Tech. He regularly drew double teams against the likes of Western Kentucky and Arkansas State, and he showed violent hands a knack for getting into the backfield.

Against the best competition he faced all season, though, some of Butler’s weakest traits stood out more. La. Tech’s match against Mississippi State showcased some of Butler’s disruption but showed more of his reticence to tackle and few moves along the line.

“He has a little bit to learn, obviously, but there is a lot of potential, a lot of upside, especially for a guy that is 320 pounds to be able to move that way and do the things that he does,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday night. “He is explosive, he is powerful at the point of attack, he has heavy hands, and he has good upper body strength. We would like to see him improve a little bit on the lower body strength, even though he is still powerful and stout, we think he can take it to another level.”

NFL teams look for hand quickness and aggression in interior players. How quickly and viciously can he disarm his blocker? Butler has the hand speed and violence you want in a defensive tackle.

Against Western Kentucky, Butler abused the center with a quick move to slap away the arms. It left the center in his wake and Butler going at the face of the quarterback.

What really impressed the Panthers was Butler’s performance at the Senior Bowl. He stood out at practice against competition from bigger schools according to Gettleman, who had to watch tape of the practices rather than be there because of Carolina’s playoff run.

Watch Butler’s strength here in the game against a Missouri offensive lineman who will be drafted this weekend.

Lined up as a 3-technique, Butler gets into Evan Boehm’s body. Butler doesn’t use his long arms to work around Boehm, but instead muscles through the guard not once but twice and forces the quarterback to fumble.

To be honest, the lack of sacks doesn’t sit well with me. In four seasons, Butler had five sacks, with three coming in his senior season.

Gettleman and Rivera explained that by saying Butler was impactful on passing downs and opened up things for his teammates.

An example of that came in the bowl game against Arkansas State. The Red Wolves’ protection went right, and Butler matched up against the center, whom he beat. Arkansas State’s running back then came in to double team Butler, and that left the right defensive end to go one-on-one against an over-matched pass-blocker. The result was a quarterback pressure that resulted in a throwaway.

But even Butler seemed to indicate Thursday night that he needs to do a better job finishing at the quarterback.

“I think I did a good job getting the quarterback on the ground,” he said. “Push the pocket to change the play. It’s something I’ve been working on this offseason so there’s nothing to worry about with that.”

When you can’t get to the quarterback, you need to get your hands in the air. Butler only had three passes defensed in his career, but I can’t imagine the two others were as good as this one.

Against Arkansas State, Butler lined up inside against the center. He did a quick rush and then moved left into the quarterback’s passing lane, apparently expecting a comeback route.

He was right, and he timed his jump perfectly to knock the ball away.

More of that in the pros will go a long way.

But one of the things that drives me crazy watching Butler in these three games is how clean his jersey remains.

I’m not saying he needs to go jump on every pile, because he’s doesn’t. He’s a 323-pound man who doesn’t need to be throwing his body around like Troy Polamalu.

But there’s a clear absence of Butler taking someone to the ground in these three games. He had 10 combined tackles in the games, and two of his three against the Bulldogs came in garbage time against a backup quarterback draining the clock.

In all three games I marked at least two plays were Butler didn’t give full effort on a play where he couldn’t have tackled the runner.

Watch this play against Mississippi State. The right guard is on Butler’s right shoulder. Butler does a slight jump thinking the running back could bounce outside, and leaving his feet allows the back to move back inside and through the gap.

Butler could have shot for the knees but remains upright with the blocker on his back. The running back takes it near the 10-yard line and the Bulldogs would score a few plays later.

What’s also lacking from Butler are a few more moves than just the bullrush or swim move. His spin move is ineffective and that showed in each game.

Observers wanted Butler to run faster than his 5.33 speed at the combine but he did not. That time also shows in his pursuit of quarterbacks on tape. But his speed lies in his first-step quickness and not in pursuit. His occasional willingness to drop into coverage is very attractive.

Against Western Kentucky he was able to stand up a few yards past the line of scrimmage and rush the passer, and any running back having to take those duties will suffer.

But as Rivera said, Butler will need to improve his lower body to maximize his bullrush.

I’ve seen Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington and assistant Sam Mills III add moves to players’ repertoire. And if Butler is as football smart as Rivera indicates, then he shouldn’t have a problem picking these things up.

“He had the ability to retain and regurgitate very quickly,” Rivera said. “When Eric had him on the board and we were going through things, then it was his turn to put it back, he did a nice job with it. He really did. You knew he was a sharp kid. You know he could learn, and he is going to grow quickly, which we believe he can grow quickly.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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