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Tennessee Titans Sign Malcolm Butler – Film Breakdown

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The Tennessee Titans have reportedly signed Malcolm Butler to a 5 year, $61 million deal.  I’ve long argued that one of the biggest weak points of the team has been the lack of a standout cornerback next to Adoree’ Jackson.  I profiled Kyle Fuller as my initial target, mainly because I figured he might be cheaper than Butler or Gaines, but this is a very good signing for the Titans.  We can argue about the contract and if it’s worth it, but this move immensely improves the Titans defense, and the options available for Dan Pees. 

Player:  Malcolm Butler

Malcolm Butler is of course most famous for the interception of Russel Wilson in the Super Bowl, but he’s grown to be an excellent corner, after being an undrafted free agent.  Butler thrives more on instincts and knowledge than pure athletic skills. 


40 Time: 4.62 (A dreadful time for an undersized CB)

3-Cone: 7.20 (In the 2017 draft, would be worst among CB class at combine)

20 Yard Shuttle: 4.27 (A good number, better than standout cornerback Tre’Davious White)

Broad Jump:  9’10” (Slightly below average number)

You can see why he was an undrafted free agent as he was a small school prospect without outstanding physical abilities.  Every year there are players in the draft that will drop based on combine testing (Alshon Jeffery is a famous one), yet still end up with very good careers, and Butler is a prime example. 

In this case, Butler turned his Super Bowl interception into a springboard for success, making the Pro-Bowl in his second year.  Prior to the 2016 season, USA Today ranked him as the 5th best corner back in the game.   Going into 2017, Pro Football Weekly ranked him as the 7th best cornerback in the game.  Safe to say he was well respected around the league prior to his 2017 season. 

Tennessee Titans Problem:

The main issue for the Titans defense has been the lack of a second cornerback.  I’m a fan of Adoree’ Jackson, and I believe his potential is excellent moving towards the future.  The adjustment from college to the pros is one of the hardest for a cornerback, and he held his own last year.

According to Football Outsiders, the Titans were ranked 24th against the pass last year, but their ranking improves to 11th overall against No. 1 receivers.  However, they were ranked 28th against the No. 2 wide receiver, while ranking dead last (32nd) against running backs catching passes.  The team struggled mightily at stopping secondary options, which led to sustained drives for opposing offenses. 

Taking a look at the Patriots game, the defense did a good job in containing Brandin Cooks, but gave up over 100 yards to Danny Amendola, as well as almost 80 yards to Dion Lewis (A post on him will come later this week).  Even in the wild card game, Demarcus Robinson got his first touchdown of the season, along with his second highest receiving yards while playing against the Titans. 

Player Fit:

Adoree’ Jackson should be a very good cornerback in the league, so Butler will slide in perfectly opposite of him to form a great duo.  According to PFF, Butler has the 4th best Playmaker Index mark among cornerbacks since 2015, which indicates the percentage of passes thrown against him where he makes an interception or pass breakup. 

The fit for Butler is twofold, because he can be useful in defending the run out of the cornerback position.  Therefore, Pees has the option to send more blitzes with the hope that Butler can act as a line of defense against the running back in the open field.   The second option allows the defense to move into more single high safety looks with Jackson and Butler on the outside.  The Patriots went to this look against the Titans once they got a lead, moving the second safety down to the linebackers, which essentially bottled up the offense.  

This is a good article from the Players Tribune, detailing why Malcolm Butler is a great cornerback, through the eyes of Emmanuel Sanders: 

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.

But he’s also the perfect cornerback for the kind of defense they like to run in New England.

The Patriots like to play either Cover 2 or One-High Man. In Cover 2, they have two high safeties splitting the deep halves, and they typically run man coverage underneath. One-High Man is basically just a Cover 1 — one high safety — with man coverage underneath.

These schemes suit Malcolm really well because one of his greatest strengths is his catch-up speed.

Let’s say you’re running a go route. What he’ll do is, he’ll play you inside at the line of scrimmage and throughout the route. But he’ll also let you get a step on him so he can play behind you — he’ll give you the deep ball.

I know that sounds crazy, because why would a corner let a receiver get a step on a go route?

Well, what it does is, it basically cuts off three-quarters of the field — actually, more.

Think about it….

He’s playing you on the inside, so it’s going to be tough to get off the jam on an inside-breaking route — like a slant or a cross. And because he’s trailing you after giving you that step on the outside release, he’s cutting off all out-breaking and comeback routes because he’s in perfect position to undercut them. Throw in the fact that he uses the sideline really well as an extra defender, and that understands where his safety help is over the top, and all it really leaves you is the deep ball down the sideline, which is a low-percentage throw.

That’s why his catch-up speed is so important. He has the confidence to give you that step and play behind you because he knows that once the ball is in the air, he can still close in and make a play on it.

Please do check out the article, it’s a great read.  The scouting report from Sanders confirms how Butler is extremely smart at playing the cornerback position, relying on angles to take away certain throws in a route tree.  His style of play works great with a dominant ball hawking safety, which is exactly what the Titans have in Kevin Byard. 

The teammate aspect is also of considerable value because Butler has made himself great without prime tools.  As you saw with his Pro-Day stats, he doesn’t jump out at you athletically.  Who does? Adoree’ Jackson!  If Butler can help Jackson learn some of the nuances of the game, it will only elevate the potential of Jackson moving forward.  Jackson has an immense amount of skills, but lacks refinement as of now, but Butler can go a long way to instill small tricks (as Sanders mentions) to take his game to another level.

Film Review:

Let’s look at some film to showcase why Butler is a very good cornerback:



On this play, ignore what actually happens with the ball, but look at Butler matched 1 on 1 against Antonio Brown with Cover 2, as Sanders described.  Notice how Butler gains inside leverage by standing a step to the inside, and then moving further inside when the route starts.  He has safety help to the inside, so he’s turning his hips towards an outside route at first, using the sideline as an extra defender.  As Brown goes down the field, Butler turns his hips to mirror the receiver, so he’s now in position to turn inside or outside in reaction to the receiver’s movement.  The only option here for Roethlisberger is a deep pass to Brown with the safety over the top, a risky proposition, so Butler played this route perfectly.  He took away the underneath options by gaining inside leverage and playing a step behind, and then funneled him right to the safety. 



This is an excellent play to highlight the versatility of Butler and how the Patriots use him to disguise their defense.  Reading the line of scrimmage, Butler is matched up one on one with Brown again, and seemingly a linebacker is responsible for Le’Veon Bell out of the backfield.  For the QB, he’s reading the linebacker first to hold him, assuming Butler will move out of the zone with Brown.  However, the Patriots drop the linebacker into coverage over the middle, and Butler disengages from Brown, taking over the responsibility for the running back.  Antonio Brown does get open over the middle, but that falls more on the linebacker and the safety.  A one on one matchup for a premier running back against a cornerback is more desirable for the offense, so Roethlisberger throws the ball out in the flat to Bell, who gets tackled immediately.  Notice how soon Butler breaks on the pass, as he’s taken two steps before the ball is out of the QB’s hands.  Thereafter, he makes a great open field tackle of the running back and holds the play to a minimal gain.  In this case, Butler highlights how he can help in defending passes to the running back, because he’s a strong tackler in the open field.   This type of versatility helps disguise the defense at times, creating confusion, especially for younger QBs.



Once again, ignore the result of the play, and focus in on Butler matched up on Brown to the right side of the formation.  He’s facing a crossing route from one of the more elusive receivers in the league, so notice the angle he takes.  Brown gains inside leverage with the route, but notice Butler under-cutting him on the route.  If Roethlisberger were to target Brown on this play, he can’t throw the pass on a line, but rather has to throw it over Butler on an arch.  If Brown decides to turn up field, then Butler has safety help over the top.  While he’s lost inside leverage on this play, he still maintains an excellent coverage position by taking advantage of angles.  Roethlisberger has to make the perfect pass in a risky situation here to beat Butler, and wisely chooses against it.  On a pure talent basis, Brown will blow Butler out of the park, but Butler uses great angles and knowledge of the defense to gain advantages.  He isn’t the Darrelle Revis type corner back that you put on an island and forget because then he’s susceptible to the deep pass, while playing these angles.  However, if there is a good safety on the field acting as the deterrent to the deep pass, then Butler is an excellent option at defending the short to intermediate route. 



On this play, Stephon Gilmore gets an interception while defending DeAndre Hopkins.  However, look at this play again and see which cornerback played better defense.  Gilmore is giving up yards in coverage as he’s backpedaling, leaving him open for the short throw.  Essentially, Watson makes the correct read, however because of pressure, he can’t step into this throw, or there is some form of miscommunication.  When Watson throws the pass, the short throw on a deep curl route is there, but Hopkins doesn’t make the cut.  Since Watson can’t put much force behind the throw, it floats for an interception.  In the box score, Gilmore looks great for the interception.  However, to the right side of the formation, Butler is facing the exact same route, yet notice how he stays right there with his receiver.  They are both playing the same coverage, with outside leverage, against the same route and Butler is right there with his defender, while Gilmore is giving up too much space.  However, a bad throw by Watson (or a miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver) leads to an interception, although Butler played defense better on this play.  The caveat here being that Gilmore is facing Hopkins, while Butler is facing the No. 2 receiver. 



This is another play in which Butler isn’t really involved, but rather makes a great read.  I put this play in here to show his play recognition skills as Butler is lined up to the right side of the formation, near the three bunch receivers.  The Texans essentially are running a wheel route with the receiver defended by Butler, with a tight end moving in the same area to provide a disturbance.  Butler has three options while this play unfolds, one would be to go behind the tight end towards the line of scrimmage to reach his receiver as quickly as possible, but the angle would make him susceptible to this exact wheel route.  His second option is the most direct path, but then the route by the tight end acts as a natural pick route, and ends in a touchdown for the receiver.  Butler correctly surmises that his best option is to go over the top, and then establish inside leverage against the receiver.  Notice that Butler doesn’t just run over to the side, but targets the left hip of the defender, because as Sanders mentions in the article before, he’s taking away options.  At that point, Butler is in position to defend the out route, in route, or curl route.  However, he also has enough balance and recovery speed to maintain his inside leverage position while running down the field.  Watson would have to make a perfect lob pass to the back of the end zone to even have a shot at a completion to the receiver.  It’s another example of how Butler can really limit the options of a quarterback by understanding trigonometry. 



It’s a play where he gives up a completion to DeAndre Hopkins, although I think it’s still a great coverage.  This just happens to be an even better route by Hopkins and exceptional timing by Watson.  Butler is one on one with Hopkins, and the star receiver attacks to the outside of Butler, which has the intended effect of turning the defender’s hips.  Since the hips are turned to the outside, chances are the head is turned the same way, at which point Butler can’t see Watson start the throwing motion.  Notice the timing of this throw, because when Watson releases this ball, Hopkins is still engaged with Butler in a battle for positioning.  The receiver gives a slight push-off, which opens up just enough time for the pass to be completed.  If Watson was a bit late with this throw, or the push-off was a bit early then Butler is in position to make a play on the ball.  While he does give up the reception, I believe Butler played this route extremely well and gave a small window of opportunity for the catch.  Unfortunately for Butler, the offense took advantage of it. 



I’m putting this play here to highlight how he plays within the framework of the defense, but don’t pay attention to the result.   On this play, he’s facing Hopkins in the slot with a safety over the top.  Notice how Butler first makes contact with Hopkins down the field, because that is the crucial point in this defense.  That exact point is where Butler is in position to defend an in route from Hopkins, because he’s facing that way.  Butler initiates contact because it slows down Hopkins if he’s going to run an out route, giving Butler enough time to turn his hips.  If Hopkins is moving down the field, then he leads him right to the safety.  Notice how Butler bumps him, which slightly slows down Hopkins, and then turns his hips to the outside to gain inside leverage on the receiver for the corner route.  The only throw that Watson can make to Hopkins is a perfect lob pass to the corner of the end zone, because Butler has taken away all the other options.  In this case, Butler can be aggressive towards establishing inside position because he has a safety to protect against cut back routes from the receiver. 



I’ve seen a few Titans’ fans cite this play as an example of Davis eating Butler’s lunch, but this isn’t bad coverage at all.  The receiver is running a hitch and go route and Butler plays it perfectly to defend the in route, while still recovering for the deep route.  As mentioned above, Butler leaves one option for the quarterback, which is the perfect throw and catch.  Marcus Mariota makes an absolutely beautiful throw, and Corey Davis has an even better catch for the touchdown.  This is a case of a perfect throw coupled with an amazing catch beating excellent coverage.  


I don’t have the full breakdowns, and cap hit as of now, and how much of the money is spread out.  In the free agent market, about 12 million per year seems understandable.  He would slot in around Janoris Jenkins and Dre Kirkpatrick, but I can’t really comment on the contract until the numbers are final.  I would like to add that there is an extra value attached to attaining a star player at a premium position for a team looking to win now.  It’s mostly used in baseball for wins over replacement value, but assuming that Butler is worth one win per year (there isn’t a reliable WAR stat for football, so just use your imagination here), it would mean he costs more to the Titans than a lesser team.  It’s worth more for a team going from 9 wins to 10 wins, than 5 wins to 6 wins, so a competing team like the Titans might be willing to over-pay a little because they aren’t playing in a level market field.  The market evaluation by the Browns might be different than the Titans because they want that 1 win difference maker at a more desperate level than a 5 win team.


Malcolm Butler is an excellent cornerback, but he’s not a physical specimen.  He’s not Patrick Peterson or Darrelle Revis, where you match up against the No. 1 guy and forget about them.  Butler plays more on his defensive acumen and understanding of angles.  He plays well in a structured defense that can assist him with a safety over the top with ball skills, which applies with the Tennessee Titans.  It’s a great signing for the Titans, even if the money might seem a bit high.   I believe he will fit in seamlessly in a Dan Pees defense, with his skills allowing the defensive coordinator to disguise his defenses even more.  

As usual, please like, share, and subscribe.  I’ll write more on Dion Lewis in the coming week, still busy with real estate and trying to get clients.  If anyone needs help with real estate, please feel free to check out the blog.  I’ll start writing real estate articles there soon, just working on some content first so it launches with a couple of articles. 

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