Futures

Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Hakeem Butler

by Derrik Klassen

After three years of competing for targets in a crowded group of upperclassman wide receivers at Iowa State, Hakeem Butler finally broke out during his redshirt junior season. Butler took over the offense in dominant fashion in the absence of the seniors who left after 2018. In 2019, his first year as the primary receiver, he amassed 1,318 yards and nine touchdowns. Both marks accounted for over 40 percent of the team's total receiving production. He was an explosive workhorse of a receiver for the Cyclones even though defenses knew the quarterback always wanted to throw his way.

Butler's defining feature is his presence as a vertical threat. A player with his size and speed warrants extra respect from the defense almost by default, never mind how skilled the wide receiver may be. For Butler, though, being a devilish deep threat is about more than his measurables. He is a technician, a master in the subtleties of his craft.

Vertical threats must understand how to win the leverage they want (inside vs. outside) and be able to kick into another gear once they have earned that leverage. A wide receiver must be able to work the cornerback out of position and not allow him back in to control the route. This is where Butler excels.

Butler is the lone receiver to the top of the screen in the play below. The cornerback opposite Butler is playing tight man coverage, which means he will be forced to flip his hips early in the play to match the receiver's speed.

via Gfycat

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At the snap, Butler takes a step forward to eat up some of the cushion, then stutter-steps before working to the outside shoulder of the cornerback. The cushion between the receiver and cornerback is gone by this point, so the cornerback has to commit with Butler's outside movement. The moment the cornerback turns his hips to the outside, Butler redirects inside and uses his long arms to fend off the cornerback from working back into a favorable position. Butler's ability to chew up the cushion, work to the correct leverage, and generate enough separation made for an easy seam throw for the quarterback.

Here he is doing the same thing on the same concept against Texas later in the season.

via Gfycat

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Butler is especially good at simply flying past the cornerback's shoulder. In most tight coverages, the cornerback uses his shoulder/arm as a leverage point to control the wide receiver and keep up with them. Subtle grabs, pulls, and bumps from the cornerback can all serve to slow down a wide receiver's route. Butler, however, does not put up with that.

The two following clips are of the same play, the first showing the sideline angle and the second the broadcast view. Butler is to the bottom of the screen by himself, again facing tight coverage with the free safety cheating to his side.

via Gfycat

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via Gfycat

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Similar to the first clip, Butler shoots forward off the line and stutter-steps before attacking either shoulder of the cornerback. He does not set up the cornerback to bite one way or the other this time, though. Instead, Butler straight up attacks the cornerback's outside shoulder and accelerates down the field. When the cornerback goes to get a hand on him, Butler swipes the cornerback's hands down before dropping his head to continue accelerating down the field. The hand swipe and second burst of speed granted Butler the outside leverage and downfield separation that he wanted.

The play is made more miraculous by the adjustment Butler made to an underthrown ball. That he could turn out of a dead sprint and locate the ball with such ease is a feat of its own, not to mention the balance and speed after the catch. Plays like this one make Butler feel like a cheat code.

On top of being a stunning deep threat, Butler has the tools to punish cornerbacks for giving up too much of a vertical cushion. He does not have Julio Jones-level agility and explosion, but for someone his size, Butler is a surprisingly sudden player.

via Gfycat

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Take this simple play, for example. The cornerback opposite Butler is playing a bail technique, which means he is surrendering the opportunity to contest a route early in exchange for a chance to more easily defend down the field. Butler sells the vertical route to force the cornerback to bail, only to stop on a dime and turn back to the quarterback. The sudden break quite literally catches the cornerback slipping and earns Butler more than enough separation to invite an open throw.

Though you would not be able to tell from the previous clips, Butler does not have to be lined up in an isolated position to be effective. He was often put there because Iowa State liked to get him into the boundary by himself to attract extra attention away from two- or three-receiver sets to the field. Butler actually played more of a slot receiver role next to Allen Lazard in 2017 and found himself lined up in the slot often in 2018.

via Gfycat

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Butler is in the slot near the right hash for this play. Kansas' defense is in a two-deep safety look with three defenders to the offense's right side: a deep-half safety, a shallow cornerback, and a third defensive back playing "wall" technique on the hash. Butler shows fantastic spacing to bend around the wall defender just enough for his route to go undeterred, then fake an inside break after he is past the wall defender. The inside fake gets the deep-half safety to turn his hips inside, giving Butler the green light to fly past him down the field. Again, he has to bail out the quarterback, but he does so with another fantastic adjustment before a heroic yards-after-catch effort for a touchdown.

In addition to being a top-tier vertical threat, Butler is a terror after the catch. His blend of size, speed, and balance gives him all the tools to take any reception to the house. Sprinkle those physical tools with Butler's bully mentality and you get a wide receiver whom defenders will not ever want to mess with.

via Gfycat

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Out of the right slot again, Butler makes a mockery of Oklahoma's defense. The level of disrespect Butler shows the first defender is a jaw-dropper by itself, but is somehow not even the most impressive part of the play. After throwing the first defender to the earth's core, Butler books it up the field and forces two Sooners defenders to try to tackle him from behind. He shrugs off both defenders before regaining his balance to cross the goal line.

Other times, Butler does not need to put a handful of defenders in the dirt. His speed alone can do the trick.

via Gfycat

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Down at the bottom of the screen, Butler works free over the middle of the field. The defense left the middle of the field exposed with no deep safety, which, if you have been keeping up to this point, seems like an obviously bad idea. The throw ends up a hair behind Butler, but he reels the ball in with ease and explodes up the field. His transition from catching the ball to becoming a runner is seamless. Once he got going in the open field, there was no chance he was going to get caught.

As if Butler were not already enjoyable enough, watching him block is a blast. Not many wide receivers are good at blocking, much less enthusiastic about doing it. Butler is a different breed. He is a bully whose intentions are to make the defender second-guess ever stepping up to him again. Even if the ball is not going to his side of the field, he wants to go out and hit somebody.

Here are a few quick clips of Butler demolishing the defender across from him. Butler is at the top of the screen on the first play and at the bottom of the screen for the other two plays.

via Gfycat

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via Gfycat

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via Gfycat

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Unfortunately, Butler is not without his warts. The most notable blemish on his profile is his propensity to drop passes he should not. The issue is not so much that Butler has bad hands, but he seems to suffer a lapse in concentration when the ball gets to him. He has shown plenty of ability to go up and make tough catches, so it is troubling when he lets relatively easy catches hit the dirt.

via Gfycat

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via Gfycat

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Butler is the receiver farthest to the right in both clips. In both instances, he has to extend his arms to get to the ball, which should not be an issue for someone with his wingspan and hand size. He gets two hands on the ball on both opportunities, but allows it to slip right through his mitts anyway. It does not make sense for him to suffer drops on these plays while regularly making improbable snags in traffic down the field.

Perplexing drops do not necessarily doom Butler, though. Matt Harmon of Yahoo! Sports, the creator of Reception Perception, is a proponent for the idea that drops like Butler's can be mostly random, as well as the belief that wide receivers can make up for drops (or other deficiencies) with a "trump card" trait. Butler's vertical prowess and explosiveness after the catch are powerful "trump card" traits.

Drops and all, Butler is a supreme wide receiver talent. Players of his size do not come around often, especially not ones who can run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. Complemented by his savvy vertical route-running, acrobatics, and bully play style, Butler's physical talents are a recipe for limitless potential. It would not be a surprise if Butler quickly became one of the most explosive receivers in the league.

Comments

3 comments, Last at 07 Apr 2019, 4:38am

1 Re: Futures: Hakeem Butler

by KAO22 // Mar 28, 2019 - 11:19am

KAO

An A+ Prospect imo. Drops are not an issue when you have ability to make up for your QB's poor job at an elite level. He's an accuracy enhancer who can play inside or out. Has great press releases and is a dangerous vertical threat. Top all that off with his epic YAC ability and LOVE of blocking.....

For life of me I cannot figure out how teams don't have him top 15 on their boards. Especially in this offense dominated league....

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3 Re: Futures: Hakeem Butler

by Theo // Apr 07, 2019 - 4:38am

Who says teams dont have him in the top15?

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2 Re: Futures: Hakeem Butler

by RobotBoy // Mar 30, 2019 - 9:17pm

Good grief, his QB did him no favors. I hope he's there for the Pats at the end of the first.

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