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Adam Butler’s transformation from undrafted free agent to key Patriots defender

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Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Each spring, before the chaotic aftermath of the NFL Draft even begins, Bill Belichick begins making round after round of phone calls to dozens of players that have been prioritized as key undrafted free agent targets. As the draft concludes and Belichick secures commitments, he relays the same sentiment to each signed player:

It doesn’t matter how you got here.

For interior defensive lineman Adam Butler — a fifth-year senior from Vanderbilt — that’s precisely how it went.

“I had other offers, maybe with a little more money, but I could tell they were blowing smoke,” Butler told ESPN’s Mike Reiss in 2017. “I sat down with Coach Belichick the night before pro day and I knew he was really interested. Of course, he was there to see Zach Cunningham too, but sitting there, I knew I would fit this system really good and knew I would have a legitimate chance here.”

At that pro day, the six-foot-four, 295-pounder ran an unimpressive 5.2 second 40-yard dash, but put up a sparkling 7.50 three-cone time. That mark would’ve ranked second among interior defensive lineman at the 2017 NFL Combine behind first round pick Jonathan Allen from Alabama. More importantly, it backed up the quick feet and suddenness that showed up on Butler’s college tape.

Perhaps the quality that Belichick and the Patriots scouting department initially liked the most about the Dallas area native was his ability to adapt and learn quickly. After his redshirt freshman season, Vanderbilt was short on bodies along their defensive front and asked Butler if he could make the switch from center. It’s something that Butler says helped him develop into his new role quicker.

“It helped expose me to the different types of blockers you get. Sometimes you get position blockers, sometimes you get guys that just drive you off the ball,” Butler told Pats Pulpit Managing Editor Bernd Buchmasser in Atlanta this week. “It helped me to understand how to counter. I know what offensive linemen want to do, so I know what to do to counter what they want to do. And that’s really all it is. If they try to knock you off the ball, you want to knock them off the ball. If they’re trying to hold you, you try to get their hands off of you. If they’re trying to high-arm you, you’re trying to high-arm back.

“Ultimately, it did help me.”

As the Patriots wrapped up training camp in 2017, Butler — through weeks of solid work in practice and three dominant preseason performances — had earned himself a spot on the bench in the team’s final preseason contest. It signaled not only his victory over Josh Augusta, Woodrow Hamilton, and Darius Kilgo for the roster’s final spot along the defensive line, but his status above former fourth round pick Vincent Valentine on the depth chart. Two weeks later, the former Commodore started his first NFL game over veteran Alan Branch in New Orleans.

Fast forward a year and a half and Butler still has a stranglehold on his role as the interior presence in the Patriots’ sub-rushing package where he uses his quick get-off and powerful hands to create gap pressure and to crash down on blockers, opening up lanes for looping defensive ends and blitzers. It’s something he has put on full display in the playoffs with a stellar performances against Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey and Kansas City’s Mitch Morse.

Butler has had the opportunity to focus heavily on his sub-rushing role this year, as his early-down work has been reduced a bit overall with the addition of Danny Shelton to the normal duo of Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy in running situations. However, Butler’s early-down workload increased a bit since the bye week, with the team playing so much nickel and dime defensive packages against high-powered offenses.

“I think I’m starting to get into a three-down, four-down player. I think I still have a lot of work to do, though. I feel like I just need to keep working on my fundamentals, my technique and just keep getting really good at it.” Butler says. “But of course, my primary position is the third-down package and of course I have to make sure that that’s taken care of, regardless. I try to do everything I can to take up blockers so other guys can come free. Now I really just try to do that job really well. As far as the run game goes, I can definitely make some improvements.

Butler also says that it helps to have veterans like Guy and Brown to lean on.

“It helps a lot and they definitely point me in the right direction because I don’t want to say that a lack of experience makes you a worse player, but having experience does in essence make you a better player because you know how to react in certain situations.” Butler says. “I look up to them for that because they have this experience, they know what they’re talking about. And when I apply whatever they tell me, it works out for me. It’s critical to have guys like that in the room.”

In Super Bowl 53, its going to be those run game fundamentals that the Patriots defense needs to focus, Butler says.

“We just have to eliminate the run game. We eliminate the run game, we got a chance. I trust in our defensive line, trust in our linebackers and DBs. And once we stop the run, you know our third down unit is going to get out there”

Adam Butler is the Patriots’ dynastic success personified; the quintessential scrapheap-er turned crucial function filler. And, with an opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time on Sunday, it doesn’t matter how he got here. All that matters is the second half of that Belichickian ethos spoken to each new undrafted Patriot:

It’s what you do while you’re here.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @BPhillips_SB