Mario Butler spent last year on the practice squad. Due to his hard work, Butler is now a member of the 53-man roster.
Everyone knew that I was pretty disappointed when the Dallas Cowboys released outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton. It isn't exactly known if the Cowboys offered Hamilton a spot on their practice squad, but if they did, Hamilton chose to go in another direction and sign with the Baltimore Ravens.
It's a risky business when you have to get down to your 53-man roster and decide to release a player with the intention of bringing him back as a member of the practice squad.
The Cowboys did this a few years ago with pre-season sensation Matt Moore. Moore could have been the Cowboys backup quarterback, possibly their quarterback of the future. Instead of keeping him on the 53-man roster, they released him and hoped to bring him back and sign him to the practice squad. Moore was claimed on waivers by the Carolina Panthers and eventually started some games for them that season.
Perhaps the Cowboys missed a golden opportunity with Moore, but we won't know how the Hamilton situation will play out yet.
With all of the heat the Cowboys have taken for the Moore and Hamilton decisions, I wanted to write a feature about a player who has become a success of the practice squad program.
More after the jump...
Right after the draft, I look forward to seeing the names of the undrafted rookie free agents that the Cowboys have signed. For whatever reason, this is an area that the Cowboys' scouting department has done a very good job at. They always seem to find two or three legitimate prospects who have some long term potential.
Mario Butler went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft because he lacked prototypical speed. Butler ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, so it was pretty clear to NFL teams that he didn't have great speed. What Butler did have going for him was his size (6-0, 182) and aggressive style of play.
Butler looked pretty good during the games he appeared in during the pre-season last year, but he needed some time to develop and adjust to the NFL.
He was a perfect candidate for the practice squad and after releasing him, the Cowboys successfully brought him back to the practice squad with the hopes of developing him into a player who could contribute next season.
Butler talked about how the year he spent on the practice squad helped him adjust to the speed of the NFL.
"It’s a ton different, especially the speed of the game," Butler said. "Just going through it for a full year you know what to expect. That gives me a lot of confidence to play freely and not thinking about everything."
This is why I love the practice squad aspect of football. It's a great way to develop a player who has NFL ability, but just needs to spend more time watching and learning. Jerry Jones noticed the improvements Butler was making during his second year in the NFL.
"He’s going to be hard to keep off this team," Jones said after the Cowboys’ 28-20 loss to San Diego on Saturday.
It wasn't hard to see that Butler had come a long way in his development this summer. He appeared to be in better shape and was looking a lot faster. His footwork had improved and he was making better decisions in coverage. Even though Butler looked good in coverage last pre-season, he still had a lot of work to do in refining his technique.
Jerome Henderson is going to make this secondary look even better because he is teaching in ways that Dave Campo didn't. Henderson is going to do wonders for guys like Butler who need good coaching, and the results are already starting to show.
One of the reasons a lot of the writers who covered the Cowboys this summer had Butler penciled in on the 53-man roster was due to his versatility. Butler came to the Cowboys as an outside cornerback, but he has added the ability to play the slot and safety to his repertoire.
The Cowboys had their top cornerbacks locked in with Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins, but there was going to be an opening for the fifth cornerback spot on the roster. This summer Rob Ryan decided to see what Butler could do at free safety.
"Right now, we’re taking a look to see if he has a future there," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "He’s a smart kid. He plays corner. We want to see if he can add to his flexibility and value to our defense."
A lot of people think you can just take a cornerback and move them to safety. If it were that easy, you would see plenty of transformations from cornerback to safety, but it's just not as easy as it seems to change positions like that. Butler did talk about the similarities of the two positions when he first made the move.
"It’s the same mentality as cornerback to a certain extent, especially being the free safety, using my abilities and ball skills to get out there and try to make plays," he said. "You can roam a little bit. You can read the quarterback a little bit. As opposed to corner, when your back is always to the quarterback. It takes away some of your ball skills because you’re so aggressive against some of the receivers sometimes."
Butler took the opportunity and ran with it. Even though he didn't play the position in college, he knew it would give him an even better chance to make the 53-man roster. His willingness to play anywhere definitely played a big part when the coaching staff and front office sat down and made the final roster cuts.
The chances of a practice squad player of ever amounting into anything are slim, but on occasion you do end up seeing a success story like Mario Butler. He put in the hard work that was needed last year on the practice squad and then he came into training camp this summer a better football player.
While he must play an important role on special teams, Butler is still going to see the field on passing situations. His flexibility allows him to become a role player similar to how Barry Church was used the last few years.
Butler may not be an overly exciting or important player, but he is another homegrown talent that shows you that the practice squad can be a means of developing a player into something down the road. I am very happy for Mario Butler and I hope he continues to grow as a football player as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.