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Free Agent Spotlight: Defensive Tackle, Vernon Butler

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If Suh isn’t returning, the Buccaneers could look within the division for defensive line help

Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers, NFL Week 1 Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are obviously interested in bringing back defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for the 2020 season. In fact, Bruce Arians has come right out and said he wants Suh back and - after speaking with Suh during the off-season - Suh wants to return. That doesn’t always mean the two sides get things worked out. If Suh isn’t back in 2020, where could the Bucs look in order to fill the void next to Vita Vea? As chance would have it, they may not have to look outside their own division in the form of 6’4”, 330 lb Vernon Butler.

VERNON BUTLER’S CAREER THUS FAR

San Francisco 49ers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Vernon Butler was a first round pick - thirtieth overall - by the Carolina Panthers in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Louisiana Tech. Yet, despite the high draft capital, he didn’t get his first career start until 2019 when he started nine games for the Panthers.

Through four seasons, Butler has 77 tackles, ten tackles for loss, eighteen quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two passes defensed, and eight sacks.

Six of Butler’s eight career sacks came in 2019 where he saw 40% of defensive snaps. Plain and simple, Butler is hitting free agency because the Panthers declined the fifth year option that would have seen him receive $7.69 million dollars - virtually the entire amount of guarantees in his first four years combined. He certainly hasn’t done enough on the field to warrant that amount of cash in one season.

WHY IT WORKS

Butler was compared to Muhammad Wilkerson coming into the draft due to his power and ability to shed tackles. He posted a 5.15 second 40-yard dash, a 7.82 second three cone shuttle, and a 4.76 second 20-yard shuttle. His lower-body explosiveness and ability to get after the ball carrier is what made him a first round pick.

Unfortunately, those things haven’t quite translated to sustainable success in the NFL.

Putting Butler in a defensive system like the one in Tampa Bay under Todd Bowles could help him reach the potential that the Panthers weren’t quite able to get him to tap into. Not only that, but being the second half of a one-two punch with a player like Vita Vea doesn’t hurt matters either.

The Buccaneers did a great job generating their pass rush from the edges with Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, so Butler could do exactly what Suh did and help Vea clog the run lanes and eat blocks, freeing up those edge guys to get after opposing quarterbacks.

Not only that, but Butler is likely going to cost about half - maybe less - than Suh will. So if the two sides can’t reach an agreement on a new deal, Butler would be able to slide in as a decent backup option.

BUT...

There’s a big time unknown with Butler. This was a first round pick that didn’t get his first start until his fourth season in the NFL. That’s the epitome of underwhelming. Butler has a lot of work to do and may not be ready to start all over with another team if the Panthers want to bring him back, having just declined the option based off the money side rather than their true feelings about the player.

Butler certainly made an impact in 2019 and will be looking to build and grow off that, so whatever opportunity best suits his needs is likely where he’ll land without too much worry about the contract - but more on that in a bit.

WHAT’S THE COST?

Butler topped out at $4.75 million in the first year of his rookie deal, followed by yearly earnings of $831,660, $1.21 million, and $1.59 million. Signing Butler will likely end up in that $2.5-3 million range on a shorter term deal. Why a shorter term deal?

The exact same reason Shaq Barrett signed for one year last season.

Like I previously stated, perhaps Butler feels he can build off a solid 2019 season if given more opportunity to get into the lineup. Even though he started nine games, he reached just 40% of defensive snaps in 2019. By comparison, if he were to be signed and replace Suh, Suh played on 77% of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps. With that kind of increased workload, Butler could go along the “prove it” deal route, signing a one year deal and trying to maximize his foray into free agency in 2021 - which could be a bit of a gamble based off what happens with the pending CBA.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

For starters, we don’t know what the Panthers’ interest is in bringing Butler back which will play a huge role in what happens. Familiarity is certainly helpful in situations like this, but with a staff change following the 2019 season, Matt Rhule and his coaches may be looking to bring in more of “their guys” rather than retain a lot of a roster that went 5-11.

We also don’t know how serious Suh’s interest in returning is. We’ve heard that he wants to be back from Arians himself, but Suh may be more interested in chasing a ring if the opportunity presents itself. Now, a return by Suh won’t necessarily negate the pursuit of Butler as a depth piece, but Butler is likely going to go wherever he has the best chance to get on the field. Backing up two tackles who saw 77% and 66% (Vea) of snaps isn’t exactly the opportunity Butler would be looking for.

MAKE THE DECISION

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Which is better for the Buccaneers heading into 2020? Is it the return of Suh? Or does someone like Butler - upside, yet unproven, for a fraction of the cost - seem like the better road to travel down, especially with the questions at quarterback, running back, and offensive tackle and pending contracts for Barrett, JPP, and Chris Godwin?

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but motivation and the desire to prove one’s self is one heck of a tool.

So, what say you Bucs Nation?

Poll

When It Comes To Vernon Butler, What Would You Have The Buccaneers Do?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Sign Him, No Matter What
    (7 votes)
  • 49%
    Make An Offer, But Keep It Reasonable
    (58 votes)
  • 16%
    Invite Him For A Cup Of Coffee And See Where It Goes From There
    (19 votes)
  • 16%
    Call Him Up If They Have A Need After The Draft
    (19 votes)
  • 11%
    Don’t Need Him
    (14 votes)
117 votes total Vote Now