With the start of the new league year coming up this Tuesday and thus bringing about the start of free agency, there is a lot of talk about who the Colts will target at various positions. One of the team's biggest positions of need is at cornerback, but they are also attempting to re-sign two of their own.
Jerraud Powers and Darius Butler will both become free agents at 4:00 PM Tuesday, but the Colts are trying to make sure that they remain Colts. Powers would be a valuable re-signing, but I'm not sure he is worth the contract that he will likely get. He is an injury plagued corner who struggled at times last year even when healthy. Butler, on the other hand, likely won't command that big of a contract and is a key player that the Colts must keep.
The Colts signed Butler in September of last year from the Carolina Panthers as they entered the bye week. Even though Butler was not coached by Chuck Pagano until the end of the season, he stepped up big time and was one of the main reasons why the Colts made the playoffs. Without him, I doubt they would have. He made several big plays in close games that led to the Colts winning. The Colts played five games without Butler seeing time (Chicago, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Tennessee) and started Butler in four games (Jacksonville, New England, Buffalo, Detriot). In the five games they played without Butler, opposing quarterbacks attempted 161 passes, completing 64.6% of them. In the four games they played with Butler starting, opposing quarterbacks attempted 161 passes, completing 59.6%. The difference in the yards per attempt in those two games was 0.45 yards per pass, from 7.36 without him at all to 6.91 with him starting. In the other 7 games in which Darius Butler played but did not start, those numbers ranked right in the middle.
That said, however, with Butler in the starting lineup the Colts allowed 278.3 yards per game compared to 237 without him playing at all and 236.6 with him playing but not starting. Part of that could be attributed to the fact that the Colts played both Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford during that four game stretch where Butler started. The touchdowns were about the same throughout, as they allowed 8 pass touchdowns given up in the five games without Butler, 8 pass touchdowns given up in the seven games with Butler playing but not starting, and 7 pass touchdowns given up in the four games in which Butler started (5 of the 7 coming from Brady and Stafford).
Those numbers don't necessarily signify a guy that the Colts need to make a priority of re-signing. Did he help an awful pass defense? Yeah, he did. But did he do anything special to drastically change it around? Not really, except for in one major area: turnovers.
The 2012 Colts struggled forcing turnovers. In their first 8 games, they picked off only 2 passes and recovered 2 fumbles, amounting to 4 turnovers in the first 8 games. In the 9th game, however, Darius Butler was inserted into the starting lineup on the road against Jacksonville on Thursday Night Football. Butler doubled the Colts' season interception total in just one game, picking off 2 passes and returning one for a score, winning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He also forced a fumble, bringing his turnover total to 3 for the game while the Colts had recorded only 4 through the first 8 weeks combined. Butler went on to intercept 2 more passes on the year, including taking another one back for a touchdown at Kansas City. As a team, the Colts forced only 15 turnovers all year but 12 of them came in the 11 games in which Butler played. Butler himself accounted for 5 of them; along with accounting for half of the defensive scores for the Colts (2 out of 4). While early in the season the Colts struggled mightily forcing turnovers and while they never became a great team at forcing them, the emergence of Darius Butler contributed in large part to the increase in those numbers.
Lastly, and this is not directly because of Butler but was certainly helped by his play, the Colts went 8-3 in the 11 games in which Butler played (.727 win percentage) compared to just 3-2 in the 5 games he did not play in (.600). With Butler in the starting lineup, the Colts went 3-1 (.750) with the only loss coming at New England.
So basically, to sum it all up, re-signing Darius Butler should be a priority for the Colts. Sure, I can throw out all these numbers that really don't mean that much, but they help (even if in a small way) to highlight the fact that the Colts were a better football team with Butler than they were without. In their rankings of the best value players for the Colts in terms of play versus salary, Pro Football Focus listed Butler 6th with a +$2.2 million value differential.
Come March 12, the Colts will have Vontae Davis, Teddy Williams, and the recently tendered Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy. They reportedly want to re-sign both Jerraud Powers and Darius Butler. My guess is that they will also sign one additional player (my guess there would be Cary Williams from Baltimore) and then probably draft a corner in a round later than the first (in other words, I think they will address the position but not in the first round).
Where would Butler fit into that mix? He could get a shot to start, but he is more of a 3rd corner. He could do very well in that spot. While Jerraud Powers is more of an expendable player due to his injury history, Butler showed last year that he must be re-signed. Besides, I would like to see what working with a defensive backs coach like Chuck Pagano would do for Butler, as he didn't work much with Pagano last season due to the coach's illness.
No matter who the Colts target at corner in free agency or in the draft, Darius Butler should be a high priority for the Colts and should be a player that they keep around.