The New Orleans Saints were handed awful news Wednesday. Offseason free-agent signing Victor Butler was diagnosed with a torn ACL, ending his 2013 season before he even entered training camp with his new team. Butler was expected to give the Saints' defense, which gave up more yards than any defense in NFL history last season, a much-needed pass-rushing boost under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defense. Now, the closest Butler will get to the field in 2013 is the sideline.
The news is especially disappointing because the opportunity to start meant a lot to Butler himself. He spent four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys behind Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, playing well but only in limited time. In May, he said he was looking forward for the chance to "step out of the shadows," and even made some bold claims about the Saints' defensive prospects for next season.
"You get a guy like Rob [Ryan], you get a guy like Keenan Lewis and you add him to the secondary, you get a guy like me who can come in and help guys pick up this defense, and you're going to see a hell of a defense. That's what I'm expecting. A hell of a defense.
"We've already got the players to be the No. 1 defense. You get a defensive coordinator in there, a guy who's going to be passionate and convey that passion to the players, I wouldn't be surprised if we were the No. 1 defense in all categories next year."
The Saints may still improve (it would be kind of hard not to), but Butler won't be a key ingredient. There are bodies to fill in for him, namely Will Smith, Martez Wilson and Junior Galette, but they are the same bodies from the unit that ranked 25th in the NFL with just 30 sacks last season. So how big of an impact will Butler's injury have?
Why the Saints are in trouble
Butler was arguably poised to explode in 2013. Though he had just three sacks last season, he only played 300 snaps and pass rushed on 127. Using a metric that combined sacks with quarterback hit and hurries, Pro Football Focus found that Butler was the NFL's 15th-most effective pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker last season. Ware (sixth with 420 snaps as a pass rusher) and Spencer (eighth with 299 snaps as a pass rusher) were more effective, however, overshadowing the third starter-caliber outside linebacker on the roster.
Wilson also managed three sacks last season, but did so on 70 more snaps as a pass rusher between defensive end and outside linebacker in the Saints' 4-3 scheme. Galette was much better, notching five sacks in 205 pass rushing snaps at defensive end, but he hasn't played extensively out of a two-point stance. Smith, as Saints blog Canal Street Chronicles points out, was the worse pass rusher among all four players last season, and doesn't figure to improve as a somewhat oversized veteran linebacker.
Butler is the only Saints pass rusher who has had proven success as a linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and he's now out for the year.
Why the Saints are just fine
Of course, selective pass rushing stats are just that. In reality, Wilson and Smith had been running with the first-team defense ahead of Butler during OTAs. That doesn't mean that Butler wouldn't have run out onto the field with the starters for the season opener, but the Saints appeared on track to feature a heavy rotation of players at the two outside linebacker spots. Favoritism wasn't at play. While Wilson and Smith have been with the Saints for some time now, Butler was essentially hand-picked by Ryan when the two moved to New Orleans from Dallas.
Butler also had a ways to go as a run stopper before seeing the field, at least according to Cowboys fans. Butler actually earned a positive run grade from Pro Football Focus, though again, small sample sizes can be deceiving. Here's what a Blogging The Boys user had to say:
10. Victor Butler | OLB/DE | 3.0 | 21 | +3.3 | +6.1 |
Summary: Victor Butler had a rise in snaps due to injuries along the Defensive line and had his tackles and fumbles increase(2.0). The problem with Butler has never been rushing the QB, but stopping the run. He started versus the Bears and struggled. He may not be back due to change of scheme & his weakness versus the run.
By all indications, the Saints just lost a great football player, but if Butler was really only going to participate in a platoon, then should fans really be panicking?
Is there help?
There are situational pass rushers available on the free agent market, but unfortunately for the Saints, none are of Butler's caliber. Would the Saints be interested in someone like Juqua Parker, who is coming off a six-sack season with the Cleveland Browns? Possibly, though it's also possible they stand pat.
The Saints have bodies, with or without Butler. They somehow found Rufus Johnson out of Tarleton State in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and unrestricted rookie free agent signing Chase Thomas was projected somewhere in the first three rounds before falling out of the draft.
That said, Butler was potentially on the verge of being special. Whether or not his absence sinks the Saints, it is disheartening that he won't get his long-awaited chance to shine this season.