Punter Drew Butler could be Steelers surprise for second consecutive year

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Few expected the undrafted rookie to beat out the team's prior year's starter in training camp. After a rough first season, even fewer expected him to be back. The player is ready to prove them all wrong once again.

The football world already knows how the Pittsburgh Steelers feel about starting rookies. Most players need time as a reserve to adapt to the speed and intricacy of the pro-game before becoming productive contributors. Unfortunately for Drew Butler, teams do not have the luxury of carrying second-string punters.

Butler joined the Steelers as an undrafted free agent following the 2012 NFL draft, knowing full well he would need to beat out the team's starter from the previous season - Jeremy Kapinos - who had filled in admirably multiple times for the oft-injured Daniel Sepulveda. If Butler was going to win a job as a rookie, he was going to need a seriously good off-season.

Butler won the job by end of the pre-season, mostly thanks to the injury which forced Kapinos to spectate from the ice tub. However, Butler was not without his own talents. Unfortunately, he was without experience.

Recently, in the second installment of his 'Ask the Steelers' fan interview on the team's official website, Butler admitted to battling through 'rookie jitters'.

Last year I felt like I had the rookie jitters early in the season. I got more comfortable week three, four and five. I thought I took a step forward every week.

Butler may have felt more confident by the team's fifth game in Week 6, but it definitely took a blow before the contest was over, as the Tennessee Titans initiated Butler into the NFL by blocking one of his punts as he attempted to kick away from his own goal line. Replay showed the block to fall more on the shoulders of longsnapper Greg Warren and punt protector Ryan Mundy, who both decided to block the same man leaving another running free into the backfield; but as the season wore on, many looked back to his blocked punt as an unseen sign of things to come.

Throughout the remainder of the season, Butler endured the roller coaster of ebb and flow. One moment he would drop a kick at an opponent's one-inch line; and the next he would shank a kick out of bounds at mid-field. Unfortunately for Butler, most of his shanks came at worst-possible moments. His lowlights were highlighted by the team's inability to move the ball after Ben Roethlisberger suffered his SC joint injury which forced the quarterback to miss three consecutive games, and the team's propensity for collecting needless special teams penalties. The combination of circumstances often left Butler kicking out of his own end.

Granted, a punter's job is to help a struggling offense with the battle for field position, and Butler sometimes was unable. He still ended up with 26 kicks inside the 20 yard line out of 77 total, with only 6 crossing the endline into touchback territory - all while battling rookie jitters as a first timer.

As he prepares for his second pro training camp, he finds himself battling more than just the guy in the tub. Now, he will have to beat out stiffer competition in free-agent acquisition Brian Moorman - a veteran and former pro-bowler entering his 13th NFL season. Moorman hasn't needed to worry about rookie jitters in quite some time, and has been quite the technician through his career.

The signing of Moorman only furthered beliefs of Butler's demise, however Moorman wasn't really drastically better than Butler last year. Moorman only dropped 24 kicks inside the 20 yard line, out of 71 total punts. He did have fewer touchbacks than Butler, but only by two. Moorman also had a better net average of 38.9 ypp, to Butler's 37.8 -- a 1.1 yard difference.

Left out of those statistical lines are the yards lost to special teams penalties, yards given up by coverage units and missed blocking assignments - none of which actually equivocate poor punter performance. However, factual memory eventually fades leaving humans to rely on statistics to remind them of what really happened, allowing a poor stat line represent Butler's actual performance. Also excluded from the conversation, is the fact Butler was not just the new punter, he was a rookie punter. Butler was also the holder during field goal and extra point attempts, however most only remember his holding duties because of one poor snap by Warren which led to the only miss by placekicker Shaun Suisham inside 50 yards. Nevermind the fact he never fumbled a single hold on his own, and the poor snap in question was still corralled by Butler, almost in time for the kick to have been a successful one.

In the end, Butler performed admirably for a guy who was deemed unworthy during the draft.

When you expect to be drafted, and everyone wants to be drafted, your confidence takes a little bit of a hit. But to end up in a place like Pittsburgh has been a true blessing. I have learned so much in the past year. I have grown as a football player and a man. I am thankful every day. Having the opportunity to land at a place where you might not have expected to come, like I did here in Pittsburgh, was a blessing in disguise and I am very happy that it happened.

On top of winding up with a top-notch organization like the Steelers, and gaining a very valuable first year's experience; Butler also identifies another factor which he feels will only benefit his further development - his new special teams coach Danny Smith.

I think Coach Smith is going to bring a lot of energy to the special team’s units. I had the privilege to work with him for a week during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. He was my coach that week. I have had prior meetings with him and I think I am going to benefit a lot from him and grow as a player with him as our coach.

The job will be Butler's to lose more than it will be Moorman's to win. With Butler being in a place he wants to be, working with a coach he wants to learn from; Butler not making the team should be more surprising than his making the roster. He may have statistically been one of the worst punter's in the league, but any improvement at all will push him directly toward the top.

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