Wednesday, March 11, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
Deep beyond the smiling face and pleasant demeanor, James Butler is burning. Since the weekend of April 23 and 24, 2005, Butler has carried this with him as motivation.
After an accomplished career at Georgia Tech, Butler watched idly as 20 safeties came off the draft board. Expecting to be selected at some point, Butler couldn’t believe that his name was never called.
“It was very tough,” Butler said. “Just to watch some of the guys going before me, I was like ‘Man, these guys aren’t better than me.” I think every player goes through that. Every player has things they have to go through. I went through that and I just have to go with the punches that were dealt and that’s what happened.”
Instead of worrying about what didn’t happen, Butler decided to focus on making his own luck. He signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent on May 6.
Fast forward four years to Wednesday and here’s Butler sitting at a table, addressing the St. Louis media after inking a lucrative four-year contract to become the team’s starting strong safety.
It was a day that seemed so far away on that April weekend.
“It helped my motivation,” Butler said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Every player has a motivation whether they are trying to provide for their family, whatever it is. That was my motivation.”
Butler’s journey from undrafted free agent to successful, starting NFL safety isn’t necessarily an unusual tale. Plenty of players have worked hard enough to make an impression and stick on NFL rosters.
Not many have done it with the quick level of success of Butler, though. That it happened with the Rams is little surprise.
After battling his way on to the roster as a rookie, Butler spent two years under relative anonymity, contributing mostly on special teams with the occasional appearance on the defense.
Following his second season in New York, the Giants hired a new fire brand defensive coordinator named Steve Spagnuolo.
Spagnuolo gave Butler his first starting opportunity in 2007 and Butler rewarded that confidence with a solid first year including a team leading nine tackles in the team’s stunning Super Bowl XLII victory against the Patriots.
That relationship with Spagnuolo only grew last year and when Spagnuolo accepted the head coach position in St. Louis in the same winter that Butler was due for unrestricted free agency, the next stop of Butler’s career seemed clear.
“I think it was the biggest part of the decision,” Butler said. “Coach ‘Spags’ gave me my first opportunity to be a starter in the league and he helped my career grow, so I felt that I wanted to go along with him with the Rams.”
Of course, it takes two to make a deal but Spagnuolo wanted Butler in the fold as much as Butler wanted to be in St. Louis.
The Rams invited Butler to St. Louis on the opening day of free agency along with center Jason Brown from Baltimore.
Brown didn’t leave town without signing a contract but Butler departed sans agreement on a deal.
Over the next 11 days, there was plenty of speculation on Butler’s eventual landing spot. Although he talked to some other teams, including Cleveland, Butler never took another visit and held steadfast that St. Louis would be his final destination.
Finally, on Wednesday, Butler put pen to paper with the Rams.
“James is a real key piece to the puzzle because obviously there is a comfort level,” Spagnuolo said. “We know he knows what we are installing. In some cases, he will know better than I will and the coaches because he’s done it for two years. He’s going to kind of be the glue that brings these guys together. In this league, players tend to like to ask other players ‘How does this work? How does that go?’ I think it will be a real comfort level for the other DBs to be bouncing things off of James.”
Butler’s close relationship with Spagnuolo and comfort in his system was far from the only thing tugging Butler in the direction of the Rams.
Butler already has a friendship with three of his future Rams’ secondary mates. He has spent time working out with cornerback Ron Bartell and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe in Atlanta during the offseason.
And Butler is close friends with cornerback Tye Hill from their days in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Hill went to Clemson). That duo owns a Golden Corral restaurant in Centerville, Georgia and spent Tuesday afternoon riding around St. Louis talking about the possibilities.
Those connections left Butler with no shortage of correspondence throughout his time as a free agent.
“I think Coach ‘Spags’ had to text them or something to tell them to keep calling me because I got about 1,000 texts from Tye, O.J. and Ron saying, “Are you coming? Are you coming? Are you signed yet?” So, they definitely were texting me,” Butler said. “I worked out with them a lot in Atlanta, so we have a little camaraderie together, so it should be fun.”
For now, Butler represents an upgrade at a strong safety spot that saw the Rams vacillate between grizzled veteran Corey Chavous and special teams ace Todd Johnson in 2008.
In four seasons with the Giants, Butler posted 174 tackles, six interceptions, 21 passes defended and two fumble recoveries. Of course, Butler only became a starter two years ago so he is only scratching the surface on his potential.
“I have only been starting for two years so I have a lot more football left in me, a lot more things I can learn at this point and I am very excited for this opportunity,” Butler said.
In the immediate future, Butler says he believes he can improve across the board as he continues to grow into his role. At 6’3, 215 pounds, Butler is solid in the box stuffing the run but know he needs to be an all around player to excel in Spagnuolo’s system.
Just because Butler has secured his future with his new contract doesn’t mean he’s going to rest on his laurels.
For frame of reference, Josh Bullocks, the safety drafted in the second round the year Butler went unpicked, signed a one-year contract worth $525,000 with the Bears on the same day Butler signed his multi-million dollar deal.
“I just try to take it one day at a time,” Butler said. “Even my first year with the Giants, it was just make the team, get on the team and just keep grinding. Even at this point, it’s going to be a grind. I’m going to take every advantage and every opportunity to work hard to get better.”