Reception Perception: Hakeem Butler has Potential as a Starting X-receiver but You Can’t Miss the Question Marks
Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2019 Ultimate Draft Kit.
I’m not as good as some of my colleagues. At least when it comes to tuning out the noise.
Some members of the draft community can successfully execute a near-full media blackout during the leadup to April’s selection process. Doing so helps them remove the cloud that the opinions of other writers they respect may bring to their evaluation, positive or negative.
I could give you the excuse that my job makes it almost impossible to stay off social media to the degree where I won’t see the opinions of others. Perhaps you’ll buy my reasoning that L.A. driving and a dog that needs walking has me spending many hours needing to listen to podcasts. You could just buy the reality that as a dumb millennial, I have a tough time intentionally avoiding content when it’s out there to consume.
No matter the reasoning, the truth is I know how at least a handful of my fellow analysts view a wide receiver prospect when beginning my work on them. As I began the process of studying Hakeem Butler, I was aware of the divide. I knew analysts at the top of the field had him toward the bottom, or even outside of their top-10 receiver rankings. It was already in my brain that some of the most dedicated and nuanced film-watchers believed he is the best wide receiver prospect in the entire class.
Knowing what was already out there, I went in search of one of those two players when I reviewed his tape. Let’s discuss what I found.
Hakeem Butler has just one year of college dominance on his resume but it was a truly brilliant year. The hulking wideout paced Iowa State with 1,318 receiving yards and nine scores. He was a big play maven, with a whopping 42 percent of his receptions coming on passes 20-plus yards down the field. The fact that it was just a single season as a lead dog receiver will get him dinged by some, others will point to what a dazzling occurrence it was and move along.
The Iowa State product put more sizzle on the menu when he went to the NFL Scouting Combine. Measuring in at an imposing 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Butler didn’t stop his momentum at the weigh-in. Heading out into the drills, he took his carved-from-stone frame and crushed the on-field portion of the combine. Butler tested out as an 80th percentile NFL athlete, according to 3 Sigma Athlete. That was good for a top-20 mark in the 2019 crop of receivers.
When looking at measurables for Butler, it’s hard not to fall in love. We haven’t seen a wide receiver like this, walking on water with the pure frame of a No. 1 wide receiver of the times of old, come out of the draft in quite some time. The appeal with Butler doesn’t end at the off-field profile, but neither does the mystery.
I must have heard about the whip route Butler ran against Iowa 351 times this draft season. His reputation precedes him, thanks to that play. However, that was my issue. The longer I watched, I couldn’t help but feeling Butler’s prowess as a route-running specialist among the big receiver was a reputation and less of a reality.
In a strange way, Butler is quick but not fluid. He can dart and quickly accelerate between areas of the field. That makes him a major threat when he gets a clean release and can transition right into a slant route. He can obliterate a cornerback in man coverage when running in-breaking deep and vertical routes. Anything where Butler has to combine multiple moves to snap back to the quarterback or flip outside, the beet comes in a step too slow.
Butler has the tremendous speed for his size. He’s also able to leverage that vertical ability by selling a deep route to the corner with his eyes and shoulders before working inside to handle an intermediate gain. That sort of nuance is a great sign he can improve across the route tree.
It’s not that Butler is a bad route runner, he’s just an inconsistent route runner. He flashes a handful of strong release moves. Other times he gets easily caught up by a jam. He’s capable of demonstrating great hip movement to separate on routes. You’ll also see him run rounded or poorly timed routes just the same.
Other players like Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and A.J. Brown just have a better route vocabulary than he does right now.
You’ll hear his route-running compared to that of A.J. Green, a fellow massive lanky receiver, even if they just whisper it. I can’t. Green may well be the best separator among the big wide receivers to inhabit the NFL over the last five years. He’s an untouchable comparison in my book, especially for a player who clearly has holes in his release work and down the route.
Here's something for everyone since I've gotten some good questions about the history of RP tonight.
These are the top-25 seasons I've charted in #ReceptionPerception's success rate vs. man coverage metric through its five year history (caveat: still working through 2018): pic.twitter.com/eq3SH6jxSS
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 17, 2019
It’s impossible to deny Butler has a tantalizing ceiling. He may even have a good floor as a spot big play asset based on his college resume.
Perhaps the best chance Butler has at expanding that floor is due to position versatility. We’ve seen Butler line up at all three wide receiver positions in college. If he doesn’t get the hang of playing X-receiver and combating press coverage on 40 to 50 percent of his routes, he could primarily operate as a flanker. He’s a natural X but having options is never a bad thing.
Hakeem Butler is a tough evaluation as a route-runner. I couldn’t imagine claiming otherwise. The shining moments can grab you. The downsides are impossible to right off.
While the ultra-rare reality of who A.J. Green is as a player and the results of Butler’s film evaluation makes it impossible to compare the two in my eyes, there is a current NFL receiver who this prospect shares similarities with.
We haven’t mentioned the drops yet. It’s a negative in Butler’s scouting report but if you’re familiar with my work on this subject over the last several years, you know this isn’t a deal breaker for me. It’s never the first worry you should have about a player. If they show you they bring tangible attributes that make drops worth living with, their negative effect can be extremely overstated.
Butler is unfairly maligned for his drop issues, even if he has other worries in his outlook. I feel the drops from 2018 of his player comparison has clouded the public’s view, as well. We forget because of how he washed out of Carolina amid the breakouts of Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore while his own drops and mistakes landed him in the doghouse, but Devin Funchess was legitimately good in 2017. Reception Perception helps confirm it.
After falling below the 25th percentile for success rate vs. man coverage in his prior seasons, Funches stabilized in 2017. His 63.7 percent success rate vs. man coverage was hardly elite but showed him to be a near-league-average separator. Good enough. He also sifted through zone coverage well, on way to a 65th percentile score (80.5 percent). Funchess still had his issues releasing off the line, falling below a 57 percent success rate when pressed at the line. However, he mastered a small handful of in-breaking intermediate and deep routes and worked out kinks when timing his snap back to the passer on curls
The wideout was routinely degraded through the first two years of his NFL career as a jump ball receiver who doesn’t come with the playstyle to match his impressive size. He improved in this area last season, handling a contested catch attempt on 23.8 percent of his sampled targets while hauling in 73.3 percent of those chances.
It took time and it didn’t last into 2018, but Funchess improved to become a starting-caliber X-receiver during the 2017 season. He got better as a route runner and turned out to be a strong asset for Cam Newton in tight coverage. Peak Devin Funchess feels like the right comparison for Hakeem Butler to me.
While this feels like a negative comparison, and it’s sure to stick in the craw of those who have Butler as WR1 in this class, it’s not meant to be anything but a positive. If you properly contextualize the memory you have of Funchess, you’ll recall he looked like a player who might be breaking out during the 2017 season. He was showing measured improvement across several areas that haunted him during his early transition to the NFL.
He was a positive as a separator on routes that suited him. He was a favored in any situation that landed him with a contested catch attempt. Those qualities made him a good X-receiver, not many NFL prospects can handle that position. For Butler to be considered as a candidate is already a note in his favor. This is not slander.
Funchess was not a No. 1 receiver. I’m not sure Hakeem Butler ever will be either. But at his best, after some desperately needed seasoning, Funchess grew into his paws a solid X-receiver. Butler can go down this path, as well, provided his team works with him through potential early bumps in the road.
Hakeem Butler is my No. 5 ranked in this class. Perhaps that puts me somewhere in the middle of the chasm between the poles that exist in his draft evaluation. I think that’s right where I want to be.
The appeal with Butler is obvious. He has clear potential as a route runner. He combines that with a massive frame, ability to win the ball in tight coverage and positional versatility. If he hits, he can provide his next team with a player who doesn’t just win at the X-receiver spot but can be moved around the formation. Michael Thomas has become one of the game’s truly elite players by doing just that.
The issue is that while a receiver like Thomas displayed the technical route nuance on not just a consistent basis on his prospect film, but he did it across the entire route tree, Butler shows up lacking here. He’s a developmental prospect and it looks like the NFL sees him that way.
Butler should come off the board in an area that could be the middle of a big wide receiver run from the late second to early third round. A draft spot like that bakes in all the potential for reward while giving your fanbase the heads up that this player will take time. If he’s given that time, Butler should turn into a fine NFL player.