Rookie seasons are periods of growth for every NFL player, even those brimming with potential like Percy Butler.
Fans were excited about Butler when the Washington Commanders took him in the fourth round. Part of that came from Chris Simms calling the Louisiana prospect the best pure safety in the draft, but the hype also came from Ron Rivera himself, who said Butler could have "an immediate impact for us."
The reality of that statement was more based on special teams play than a steady role on defense. He played a total of 135 defensive snaps with a chunk of that coming in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys. But Butler soaked in as much knowledge as possible with the opportunities he was given, and he feels there is much to build on for the next step in his career.
"It was a good experience," Butler said. "I learned a lot, so I felt like that really helped me. I feel like I had a good rookie year."
Butler's time with the Ragin' Cajuns pointed to him potentially being at least a solid depth piece for the Commanders' secondary. He allowed a passer rating of 56.1 when targeted by quarterbacks, and on 866 cover snaps, he only allowed one touchdown.
Butler's skill set, Rivera told Julie Donaldson last May, was one that was "very intriguing" to the Commanders, partly because he believed Butler could allow the defense to keep using their three-safety looks, which we use in the majority of their snaps.
"He'll be part of our buffalo and nickel packages," Rivera said. "He'll get an opportunity to play the nickel position. And when we go to big nickel, he could end up as the safety, or he could end up as the big nickel."
And Butler did show flashes -- players like Bobby McCain praised Butler's willingness to learn during training camp -- but like most rookies, there was a learning curve. Butler described himself as "hesitant" when he first joined the team because he did not want to make mistakes, which is an understandable emotion for a rookie trying to create a role for himself.
Butler's growth began to come more frequently when he let go of those emotions.
"I had to realize that you're going to make mistakes," Butler said. "Everybody makes mistakes. Just go full speed, give it all your effort and stop second guessing myself. Once I stopped doing that, that's when the plays started rolling in more and more."
That was particularly true when it came to his position flexibility, which is an expected quality among all the Commanders' defensive backs. It was one of the traits Rivera highlighted back in May, along with his speed, quickness and play smarts, and with time, Butler was able to put all that on display.
"I feel like the coaches really started trusting me as the season went along that I could be out there," Butler said.
There was so much trust there that while Butler did not start in the Commanders' final game of the season, he did play in 87% of the defensive snaps and recorded four tackles with a pass breakup. And not only did he hold his own, but he also had the second best run defense grade (77.5) and tackle grade (80.0), according to Pro Football Focus.
"Getting those opportunities was big for me," Butler said. I wanted to show that I could not only play special teams. I can excel in playing defense also. I feel like I was able to show I could be out there, and that was big for me just to show the coaching staff that they can depend on me."
That message was received by Rivera.
"Very pleased with what we got from Percy," Rivera said. "Percy had a great opportunity this past Sunday and really showed what he is capable of."
With a successful rookie season now behind him, Butler has some goals for himself heading into his first full NFL offseason. He plans to put on some weight to help him destroy blocks and be more disruptive.
So, when the time comes to get back on the field later this year, he will be ready to show he can offer even more to the team.