When the Patriots released Shawn Springs in May, they sent a vote of confidence Darius Butler. Heading into training camp, the Patriots are faced with the question: Can Butler emerge as a talented starter?
Butler had a tremendous string of offseason practices, and he was being used almost exclusively as the Patriots’ starting left cornerback, opposite of Leigh Bodden. Butler was one of New England’s best performers during a month of organized team activities and minicamp, which totaled 15 practices (seven of which were viewed by the media).
If Butler held a slight edge on cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Devin McCourty for the starting job in May, he really widened that margin with his string of spring performances. Butler was a playmaker at practice — granted, they were conducted without pads — blanketing receivers in coverage, knocking away passes and pulling down interceptions. More than anything, he displayed the closing speed that made him a high-end cornerback prospect in the 2009 draft.
Butler, who was the 41st pick in last year’s draft, didn’t disappoint as a rookie. He played in 14 regular-season games with five starts, and he recorded three interceptions (returning one for a 91-yard touchdown), eight pass defenses and 31 total tackles (28 solo).
Butler seemed to deserve more playing time, but head coach Bill Belichick opted to play Springs and Jonathan Wilhite against bigger, more physical receivers. Obviously, Butler has the speed and skills to be a starting corner, but his physicality had to be an offseason focal point.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder (he added five pounds in the offseason, according to his listed weight) has to make another step forward when the team officially opens training camp July 29. It’s one thing to show strides during non-contact practices, but Butler’s biggest question still surrounds his on-field strength.
If Butler performs when the intensity heats up next month — and then, obviously, in the regular season — the Patriots can be confident about their cornerback of the future.
NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until July 24.
Thursday, July 1 — How can the Patriots best use their four safeties?
Saturday, July 3 — Will the emphasis on acquiring good character guys pay off on the field?