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Film room: Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler is one of the most underrated players in football

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Related: Film room: Chase Winovich is a serious candidate to make the second-year jump

NFL: SEP 22 Jets at Patriots Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While Adam Butler ranked only third among the New England Patriots’ defensive tackles in terms of playing time, the former undrafted rookie free agent played a noticeable role on the number one scoring defense in football during the 2019 season: he was credited with eight sacks by Pro Football Focus — tied for most on the team — and also consistently showed up as a run defender. As is generally the case with the Patriots’ defensive tackles, however, his impact goes beyond the numbers and the stat sheet.

A look at the film illustrates this, and shows that Butler might very well be one of the most underrated players in all of football.

Roles

The Patriots primarily used Butler as a nose tackle playing the 0-technique alignment right over the center, but also opted to regularly move him all over the formation to create favorable matchups either for him or other members of their front-seven.

In order to better understand responsibilities and roles, however, it helps to keep the terminology of defensive line techniques in mind — and even then this scratches just the surface, as a lot of the usage depends on the fronts (3-4/4-3; over/under) being used in regards to the different situations. That said, the following graphic should still give a general overview of the roles New England has in mind for its front seven defenders:

With that out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at how the Patriots opted to employ Butler during the 2019 season outside of his straight-up nose tackle responsibilities. Let’s start by looking at the running game, where New England mostly shaded him outside the guard as the number three interior option behind fellow defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton:

Playing in a IDL3 mix with John Simon, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Byron Cowart, Butler was on the field for 108 snaps as a run defender over the course of the 2019 season. And as the clips above show, he dominated whenever he found himself in one-on-one situations, stacking and shedding at will, showing off his mobility on horizontal concepts, and suffocating runs from the backside of the formation.

The very first play shows this well: Butler (#70) aligns as the 3-technique defender over the B-gap on the offensive right-side. The Cincinnati Bengals are running a zone blocking scheme, with the Patriots defensive tackle going one-on-one versus right guard John Miller (#67). While Miller kept working to right, Butler was able to disengage to his inside shoulder and quickly close in on running back Joe Mixon (#28) — one of many examples of Butler showing his lateral mobility to disrupt running plays.

In the Patriots’ heavier six-man and goal line fronts, meanwhile, the Patriots sometimes used him inside as either a 2i-technique or 1-technique defender over the A-gap:

Since Butler is on the lighter side for an interior defensive lineman — he is listed at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds in the Patriots’ media guide — leverage is crucial for him to challenge offensive linemen on a down-to-down basis. Luckily, this is an area in which Butler shines, as he consistently gets under blockers to shut down gaps and free up other defenders to make plays on the ball carriers (0:23) or to do so himself (0:12).

While Butler was primarily used on the inside of the formation, the Patriots also kicked him out to the 5-technique spots in their standard 3-4 alignments as well as their Tite-fronts:

Butler continued to shine from this alignment when facing single or combo blocks. He also did a great job of planting one foot to hold his ground versus double-teams, building a wall, and using his height to see over blockers and locate the ball. Just look at the play at 0:19: Butler is aligning in a 5-technique stance on the other side of Washington Redskins left tackle Donald Penn (#72), and able to hold his ground while simultaneously keeping his eyes in the backfield to take on ball carrier Adrian Peterson (#26) upon arrival.

Pass rushing

After he joined the Patriots in 2017, Butler saw most of his action as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. He is still predominately used in this capacity — three-fourths of his defensive snaps came against the pass in 2019 — and it is not hard to see why: Butler used a combination of tenacity, athleticism, low pad level, violent and precise hand placement to become one of the team’s best pass rushers regardless of position.

The clips below illustrate this, and show him winning his matchups in different fashion:

On the first play against the Miami Dolphins, Butler aligned from a 4-technique position over the left-side B-gap. With left tackle Jesse Davis (#77) kicking out, Butler went one-on-one against guard Michael Deiter (#63). While the rookie was in a good position early on, New England’s defender quickly disengaged by using a swim move to register the clean-up sack against quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (#14).

The other plays above show him win on a stunt against Dolphins center Daniel Kilgore (#77) (0:10), by reducing his frame to squeeze through the gap versus the Cleveland Browns (0:16 and 0:24), by simply overpowering his opposition on the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line (0:30), and by keeping himself alive versus the New York Jets (0:41) and the Philadelphia Eagles (0:51). In short, Butler has been winning in a lot of different ways by executing the tools mentioned above — one of the most impressive of which might be his ability to ricochet off guards to give himself more momentum in his rush and overwhelm centers.

His main role in 2019 was not necessarily attacking the pocket, however, but freeing up other rushers to make plays. This makes his production even more impressive, especially considering that he was also among the league’s second-most doubled defensive tackles and faced off against two blockers on almost 70 percent of his pass-rushing snaps (according to ESPN’s Seth Walder). As a result, he finished the season with only one quarterback hit, even though he still brought the heat on a consistent basis by registering the fourth-most hurries on the Patriots defense (14).

His main priority, though, was pushing the pocket and creating opportunities for the players around him. Butler did that very well in 2019, while also proving himself a relentless and nimble player on twists:

In general, Butler can impact a passing play without necessarily showing up on the stat sheet: he is generating the necessary push to collapse the pocket (0:10), but also possesses the quick processor to react to how a play is unfolding (0:38). Furthermore, he is able to play aggressively without compromising gap integrity (0:57). Add it all up, and you get a disruptive interior lineman who may not put up the big numbers but is a handful for offensive linemen nevertheless.

What also positively stands out about Butler are his instincts and awareness when not being able to get home on pass-rushing attempts: he led the team’s front-seven with six batted passes, double that of second-ranked Kyle Van Noy. In fact, only cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones were more active in the breaking-up-passes department among New England’s defensive personnel.

Butler’s ability to read quarterbacks and situations in combination with his quick reactionary skills, allowed him to get his hands on numerous passes last year. While none of his bats turned into turnovers, they did a) led to incomplete passes and b) created dangerous moments for the offense — moments that could very well lead to interceptions in the future if Butler is able to keep up his pace.

Run defense

As noted above, the Patriots primarily employ Butler as a sub-package pass rusher. That said, he was quietly one of the league’s most efficient run defenders as well: despite logging only 108 snaps in the running game, according to Pro Football Focus, the 26-year-old registered 14 stops and led the NFL in run stop percentage among defensive tackles who played all 16 of their respective teams’ games.

How did he do that? By winning with good pad level and hand placement, and by playing with a wide stance, good balance and a strong anchor:

Butler’s technique is one of his most impressive traits. Not only does he know how to stay in position to hold down the fort even against double teams, but, as can be seen on the first play above, also possesses the quickness to disengage and the vision and length to disrupt running backs trying to get by him. This diverse skillset allows him to be effective against both man-blocking concepts but also when going against zone schemes.

His ability to play both on a high level gave New England the flexibility to run some of their lighter packages and looks in 2019 without having to worry about getting gashed on the inside (something that was the case at times during the 2018 season, for example):

Butler being able to succeed as the big man in the Patriots’ lighter fronts — oftentimes as the lone pure three-point defensive tackle on the field — did not just give the team an ability to counter RPO-heavy offenses such as the Kansas City Chiefs’ with quicker personnel even versus the run (0:06) but also is emblematic of his development: the Vanderbilt product has come a long way from a mental and technical perspective, and is entering Year Four in New England’s system as an ascending player against the run.

All in all, Butler has proven himself a competent running mate alongside do-it-all defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and the team’s big-bodied run-stuffers such as Malcom Brown (2017), Danny Shelton (2018 and 2019) and now Beau Allen (2020). He may not earn Pro Bowl recognition anytime soon, but Butler projects to be a popular player in case the Patriots allow him to hit unrestricted free agency next offseason.