A reeling Pittsburgh Steelers team stumbled all the way to a mediocre record; crawling through injured bodies and battling bruised egos. Better field position could have been the missing piece from the playoff picture puzzle - primarily punting production.
As the 2013 season approaches, Pittsburgh will need to pick a punter who can pin opponents deep, per camp competition.
The Steelers had two punters in training camp in 2012 - Jeremy Kapinos and Drew Butler. Kapinos never "made it out of the tub" according to head coach Mike Tomlin, and Butler kicked well enough for the team to place Kapinos on injured reserve.
Butler, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia University and son of former Chicago Bears placekicker Kevin Butler, had a roller-coaster of a first NFL season. At times, he looked like a seasoned pro, toeing knuckleballs which trapped opponents inside their own ten. Other times, he looked like an undrafted rookie, shanking kicks from deep in his own end and even a blocked punt at the goal line.
Butler's growing pains were magnified as the Steelers found themselves losing the battle of field position, which led to the loss of games needed to make playoffs possible. As the off-season approaches, many fans have expressed a desire for a position upgrade; but according to the numbers, Butler was the last to blame.
Many feel Butler fails in comparison to his predecessors, Kapinos and Daniel Sepulveda. Truth be told, if Butler must have his lone year of NFL employment compared to the careers of Kapinos and Sepulveda; he exceeds them both.
Kapinos and Sepulveda both enjoyed their best seasons as professionals in 2009. Coincidentally, 2009 was the last time either player survived an entire season. Not only did Butler finish the 2012 season healthy, but his stat line shows he was at least as effective as both prior punters.
Kapinos is a restricted free-agent this season, however the team is unlikely to offer him a minimum $1.323 million tender when their starter Butler is only scheduled to make $480,000 in 2013. However, he could be offered a veteran minimum deal to compete with Butler in camp.
Many fans remember Butler for his failed catch and hold of a Greg Warren snap on Shaun Suisham's only missed field goal inside 53 yards, a poor blocking execution which resulted in a costly block or an occasional shanked punt which didn't travel nearly as far as the team was hoping for; but overall, the Butler experiment was a success.
With former special teams coordinator Amos Jones gone for the same job with the Arizona Cardinals and replacement Danny Smith already in place, job-one for 2013 is to win the battle of field position; especially concerning kick coverage and punting accuracy.
If Butler can make the necessary progress to fill all the room for improvement he exhibited in his rookie season, he could end up filling the team's depth chart for the next decade, or two.