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Malcolm Butler gives the Titans the makings of an elite secondary

Tennessee now boasts one of the most talented defensive backfields in the league.

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NFL: Preseason-New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans made their big free agency splash in the same pool they played in last spring. After remaining quiet for the first 30 hours of the “legal tampering window” Jon Robinson struck big with a 5 year, $61M deal with at least $30M guaranteed for Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, just a year after handing Logan Ryan 3 years and $30M.

Butler will now add new chapters to his incredible story in Tennessee. He was an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama in 2014 who was struggling to get teams to return his agent’s phone calls when Patriots defensive backs coach Josh Boyer finally invited him to New England to work out. Butler had run a disappointing 4.6 second 40 yard dash at Alabama’s pro day prior to the draft, but the Patriots wanted to see him run again. He ran a 4.4 at their private workout and the Patriots offered him a spot in camp. Eight months later he was breaking in front of Ricardo Lockette to make one of the biggest plays in NFL history.

He’s been a full-time starter for the Patriots in each of the three seasons since. Over that time he has accumulated PFF grades of 83.2, 88.1, and 79.2. That 88.1 grade in 2016 was top five among corners. He’s also racked up 43 passes defensed and 8 interceptions since 2015 good for 9th and 13th in the NFL among corners. No matter how you slice it Malcolm Butler is somewhere between a very good starting corner and an elite shutdown type corner.

But before we get to what makes Butler a good player, we need to address the elephant in the room. What happened last month that caused him to get benched for the Super Bowl? Well, nobody seems to know and those who would know aren’t talking about it. Here is the list of reasons I’ve seen:

Ian Rapoport was told that a “perfect storm” of an illness that caused him not to travel with the team to Minnesota combined with a rough week of practice and a minor rules violation led to his benching.

In comments immediately following the game, Butler was emotional. He seemed to think the benching was performance related, but didn’t sound like it had been explained to him.

“I don’t know what it was. I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”

Belichick publicly said the benching was not for disciplinary reasons. Saying only that he “made the decisions that give us the best chance to win.”

Then on the day after the Super Bowl, Belichick got even more vague.

Eric Rowe, who started in Butler’s spot, said he didn’t know he was starting until just before kickoff and had “no idea” why Butler was benched.

“That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t official until kickoff.”

Devin McCourty joined Belichick in saying that the benching was not disciplinary, but contradicted Rowe’s statement about not knowing until kickoff.

“As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth,” McCourty said. “We all knew he wasn’t starting all week. That wasn’t a secret to the guys on the team.

“I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It’s just not true. As far as I know — and I was there all week — not one time did anything come up.”

Matt Patricia spouted off some vague nonsense about “packages”.

“We were just trying to run some packages we had on defense and those guys that were out there were out there for all the situations that we needed them for. So, it kind of turned out that way and the game with the way it went and some of the situations that came up, that was just kind of the way it went.”

After officially accepting the Lions head coaching job a few weeks later he told NESN that he loved Butler like a son.

“I would characterize my relationship with Malcolm as extremely strong. I love Malcolm a lot,” Patricia said, per NESN. “He’s like — like all of my players — like one of my sons. I make sure that he does everything to the best, and I hope for the best for him. And that’s really all I’m going to say about Malcolm.”

Then finally, we have the social media post from Butler a couple days after the Super Bowl refuting rumors of him attending concerts and missing curfew in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

So what really happened? I have no idea and I’m not sure we will find out any time soon, but you can be sure Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel feel comfortable with the explanation they got from Butler and their deep ties in the Patriots organization. If anyone was going to get the real story from Belichick, it would be the Titans.

Butler absolutely could have helped the Patriots in that game as the Eagles passing attack torched an over matched secondary featuring reserve players like Rowe, Johnson Bademosi, and Jordan Richards playing out of their depth. He might even have swung the result, and if he had, I might not be writing this article right now.

Back to Butler as a player. As you might expect from a former Division II player from West Alabama, Butler plays with a permanent chip on his shoulder. As Jimmy covered in his post yesterday, Christopher Price described Butler’s practice habits as “manic” and that he “played like rent and food were on the line every snap”.

Late last season Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders — one of the toughest covers in the NFL — wrote an article for The Players Tribune describing the five toughest corners he’s ever faced and he started with Butler. His description is fascinating reading, but this is the part that stuck out to me.

He reminds me a lot of Chris Harris. He got that dog in him, too. He’s always doing those extra little things to make you uncomfortable — jamming you as hard as he possibly can at the line of scrimmage, or giving the ball an extra punch just when you think you got it secured. He’s a pit bull. He’s tenacious. He never gives up.

He also described Butler’s aggressive coverage style, detailing how he likes to press and stay a step behind receivers to take away the underneath routes while relying on his excellent closing speed to help him deep — essentially a trail technique. Here’s an example of that in coverage against Odell Beckham Jr.

Butler doesn’t have elite size at 5’-11” and 190 pounds so he has to make up for it with smarts, physicality, and speed. Chris Harris is actually a really good comp for Butler’s game in my opinion.

He has outstanding ball skills and instincts when the ball is in the air. Here are a couple examples of that.

Butler joins Adoree Jackson and Logan Ryan to give the Titans a formidable trio of corners to pair with Johnathan Cyprien and All-Pro Kevin Byard to form a defensive backfield that could be one of the NFL’s best in 2018 and beyond. In a league that features at least three wide receivers on the field on 63% of snaps. That means that the defenses we refer to as “sub-packages” are now really the base defense for all intents and purposes, and the Titans are treating it that way.

While I was — and still am — a big LeShaun Sims fan, the upgrade from the combo of Sims and Brice McCain to Malcolm Butler is enormous. Lets take a quick moment to appreciate the work Jon Robinson has done on what was the weakest part of the roster when he got here.

2016 Titans Opening Day Starting Secondary: Jason McCourty, Perrish Cox, Brice McCain, Rashad Johnson, Da’Norris Searcy

2018 Projected Titans Opening Day Secondary: Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, Kevin Byard, Johnathan Cyprien

Night. And. Day.

I would expect Butler and Jackson to be your starters on the outside with Logan Ryan primarily handling slot duties. Butler also brings the feisty, ultra-competitive personality that fits what Mike Vrabel has said he likes in players. You can imagine practice intensity going up a notch with Butler around and he should specifically push guys like Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor to new levels as they compete against him every day.

With the No Fly Zone and Legion of Boom being dismantled, the Titans have a top five secondary in the NFL on paper right now. I can’t wait to see what it looks like on the field.