Colts’ Darius Butler: ‘You try to be a pillar guy’

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Darius Butler (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No one saw this coming, and if someone tells you otherwise, they’re cranking out fake news or dabbling in revisionist history.

No one envisioned Darius Butler becoming an Indianapolis Colts’ defensive mainstay, a playmaker and a calming influence rolled in a tight package.

Yet here we are, a week into training camp and Butler’s running with the starting defense. More to the point, he’s a 31-year old free safety running the defense.

“He’s a really good player, but he’s a great communicator,’’ defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said Thursday. “That’s the thing we need back there.

“If they can’t communicate, it’s hard to play safety in the system.’’

Again, who saw this coming?

Flashback to September 2012.

The Colts were dealing with a rash of injuries at cornerback. Vontae Davis went down, then Justin King. It got so bad in the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 2 that backup safety Sergio Brown was forced to play nickel corner, and was no match for Cecil Shorts III on a game-winning 80-yard catch-and-run in the final minute of a 22-17 loss. The video evidence includes Brown, trailing the play in Shorts’ wake, slapping his helmet in utter frustration.

Butler was a street free agent at the time. That’s NFL jargon for a veteran looking for work. He was a 2009 second-round pick of the New England Patriots who was waived in September 2011, picked up the Carolina Panthers, then released by the Panthers with an injury settlement in August 2012.

It wasn’t a stretch to consider Butler was approaching a career crossroads.

“I had been in Carolina and got a concussion in the fourth preseason game,’’ Butler said, retracing his steps. “I got an injury settlement and I was on the street for about three weeks.’’

Two days after the Jaguars loss, then-general manager Ryan Grigson flipped through his file of available cornerbacks. He settled on Butler.

“This was my third stop,’’ Butler said. “I had a conversation with Grigson and he was kind of like, ‘Hey, man, this is the time, right now. Just take advantage of it.’’’

At some point, GM’s quit calling. They figure if a player hasn’t emerged after one, two, three stops, it’s time for the team to look elsewhere and the player to consider another line of work.

Butler smiled.

“Grigson almost said it like that,’’ he said. “That’s how I think it always feels. When you’re in this business, you know every day you’re one day closer to being replaced.

“That’s whoever you are. It could be Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning, Champ Bailey. There are a lot of great players who have been released. You never know, so every day you have to attack it with that mindset.’’

That approach has served the personable Butler well. He’s maximized the opportunity offered by the desperate Grigson in ’12 and developed into one of the Colts’ more versatile, dependable players.

And he’s done so by having to prove himself every season. Butler has stuck around by signing a pair of one-year contracts and two two-year deals. He signed a one-year, $3 million deal in March and will have earned more than $12 million when it expires next offseason.

For perspective on Butler’s staying power, consider he’s one of just nine Colts who remain from the 2014 AFC Championship game. The others: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort, Vontae Davis, Adam Vinatieri, Donte Moncrief and Jack Doyle. Erik Swoope was on the practice squad.

“I honestly didn’t know if was that many,’’ Butler said. “You’ve got to find your niche. You’ve got to do things right and obviously take care of your body, try to be as available as possible.

“You try to be a pillar guy, a horseshoe guy so I can help create a culture and pass it along to these young guys.’’

To this point, the game and practice video have confirmed Butler’s still got it. Not only does he possess the range, smarts and tenacity to be starter-quality at a new position in his ninth season, he has the willingness to work with what is a young secondary. The group includes safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston, rookies all. Safeties T.J. Green and Matthias Farley are in their second season.

At some point, the video will turn on Butler.

“Yep, when it doesn’t show you’ve still got it, you’ve got to go,’’ he said, smiling broadly. “It’s a young man’s league, especially on the back end where I play. Guys are coming in younger, faster, bigger, stronger.

“The advantage I do have is experience. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve played in a lot of systems.’’

Butler’s latest season with the Colts comes with a twist. The long-time nickel corner began to transition to free safety in 2016, and that’s now his primary residence even Monachino might use Butler at nickel in a pinch.

He added roughly five pounds to his 5-10 frame during the offseason, pushing his weight to 192. While Butler figures to be most effective playing centerfield, there will be occasion when he’ll be asked to creep closer to the line of scrimmage. The frequency might increase if he and Hooker are on the field at the same time.

“Physically I felt I could still do it at corner and it was still fun,’’ Butler said, “but at safety I saw an opportunity back there and just getting a lot of game reps. I will have much more ability to affect the game.

“In nickel, I may have two or three opportunities to make a play that can affect the game. At safety, if it’s a 60-65-play game, there should be five, six, seven plays where I can make a game-changing play, whether it’s an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery or catching a tipped ball.’’

Butler has established himself as one of the defense’s playmakers. In 67 regular-season games, he’s generated 12 interceptions, six forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He’s returned three interceptions for touchdowns, which is tied for 3rd-most in franchise history.

He’s ready for more.

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