Before Super Bowl XLIX, few knew anything about the undrafted New England Patriots rookie. Then he made the clutch, goal-line interception that cemented the Pats' fourth title -- and became an instant hero. But was it a fluke, or did a true talent emerge on the NFL's biggest stage?
The same question could be asked regarding the Seattle Seahawks' version of the surprise Super Bowl star, receiver Chris Matthews, who made the first four meaningful catches of his NFL career on Sunday -- for an astounding 109 yards. That is to say, do Butler and Matthews have what it takes to continue to play at a high level? Or are they flashes in the pan whose careers peaked with a big performance in the spotlight, à la David Tyree, of "helmet catch" fame?
Below, I provide my take on the futures of Butler and Matthews. I also list four lesser-known players with the talent and ability to jump up and seize the spotlight someday -- the potential Malcolm Butlers and Chris Matthewses of tomorrow.
Malcolm Butler: Things are looking up
I think the Patriots will find a place for Butler as a slot corner, and I expect him to be a significant contributor for some time to come. Based on what I saw on Super Sunday, he seems to have a real feel for the game, reminiscent of former Cowboys defensive back Everson Walls, who led the NFL in interceptions in his first two years in the league. Butler just seemed to know where the ball was. This isn't based solely on that last-minute interception, either. Butler really jumped out to me on Sunday, showing his ability at several spots throughout the contest.
Consider the role he played in killing a Seahawks drive that could have changed the course of the game late in the third quarter. Seattle was threatening to build on its 10-point lead after reaching midfield on a 25-yard bomb to Ricardo Lockette. On first-and-10, Butler came up to tackle Marshawn Lynch, holding him to a 2-yard gain. On second-and-8, Butler wrapped up Jermaine Kearse after a short completion on the right side, keeping him well behind the first-down marker. Finally, on third-and-2, Butler made an athletic play to break up a deep shot to Kearse on the left. Rather than pushing into Pats territory, the Seahawks were forced to punt -- thanks largely to Butler.
Butler also nearly picked off an incomplete throw to Kearse with 1:55 left in the game. Yes, he technically "gave up" that amazing, multi-bobble 33-yard catch by Kearse that set up Seattle's fateful goal-line chance -- but Butler had Kearse covered really well, and he had the awareness to get up and knock the receiver out of bounds, preventing an easy score. And, of course, Butler capped it all off with the interception of a lifetime, driving to the ball and making good on a lesson he'd learned in practice.
Butler's story is truly something. After stints at Hinds Community College in Mississippi and working at a Popeyes restaurant, he landed at West Alabama, then went undrafted and unsigned, until Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer called to bring him in for a tryout. Butler signed with New England on May 19, and he didn't play a ton in 2014. But when he did see the field, he was effective, allowing just 54.6 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed, the eighth-best burn rate among cornerbacks with 25 to 40 targets. His rise is a testament to the super job New England does with coaching and with teaching technique. Butler might not be All-Pro-caliber, but the Pats seem to have landed a solid player simply by digging a little bit deeper than everyone else.
Chris Matthews: Not a lot to get excited about
I had Matthews -- a cousin of late Hall of Famer Reggie White -- ranked as the 49th-best receiving prospect heading into the 2011 NFL Draft. Like Butler, the former junior college and Kentucky product took a circuitous route to the NFL, playing in the CFL and even working at Foot Locker at one point before winding up in Seattle. Heading into the Super Bowl, he was best known as the special teams player who grabbed the onside kick at the end of the NFC Championship Game. He has excellent size and long arms, and he's a red-zone threat because of his impressive height (6-foot-5). But he's not a very good route-runner. I'm sure the Seahawks, who tend to develop prospects well, worked with Matthews to improve that area of his game, and they obviously thought enough of him to play him in the Super Bowl despite the fact that he didn't catch a single pass in 2014.
Matthews obviously made an impact, racking up 109 yards and a touchdown on four receptions. And I think teams always like to have guys with his size. But because he doesn't have much speed, I sense that his time in the sun might have come and gone Sunday. He didn't make any exotic moves to get open on the three big catches he made (a 44-yarder and an 11-yard scoring toss in the second quarter, and a 45-yarder early in the third); it seemed like he was just a tall guy who was able to go up and grab the ball. After all, he does have seven inches on Pats cornerback Kyle Arrington, who covered him on the 44- and 45-yarder, and six inches on Logan Ryan, who covered him on the touchdown. Matthews quieted down considerably after Brandon Browner (6-4) began covering him. Consider that when Russell Wilson tried to go deep to Matthews on the Seahawks' final drive, Browner simply knocked the ball away.
Matthews reminds me of a guy who played for the Dallas Cowboys in 1975 named Percy Howard, a tall (6-4) basketball player out of Austin Peay who never played a game of college football. He didn't do anything that season but return two kickoffs -- and then he caught a 34-yard touchdown pass in Super Bowl X. We'll never know how good Howard could have been, since he tore up his knee in the subsequent preseason and didn't play again. As for Matthews, I don't see much of a future for him as a receiver in the NFL.
Under the radar and ready to rise
Here, as promised, are four lesser-known players who could shoot into the limelight next season:
Crawford -- who missed his second year as a pro in 2013 with a torn Achilles -- didn't exactly dominate the stat sheet in 2014, posting 33 tackles and three sacks. But I think he was one of the big reasons the Cowboys' defense improved as much as it did, especially with regard to the pass rush. His motor never stops, he's strong and he has the kind of speed that can be the difference between making a play and coming up short.
Gaines started five games as a rookie in 2014, and while he didn't record any picks, he did allow just 44.6 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed -- second-best among defenders who were targeted between 25 and 40 times. Anyone who posts numbers like that is doing his job and doing it well. In fact, Gaines was probably as good as any of the rookies who came in at cornerback. He has ball skills, and he's just going to keep getting better. Not only do I see him continuing to establish himself as a starter, but I expect him to one day collect postseason honors.
Johnson made a bit of a splash toward the end of the 2014 season, becoming the go-to guy in Minnesota as he and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater appeared to hit it off. The Vikings picked him up off the Browns' practice squad, reuniting him with offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who was in Cleveland in 2013. Johnson is big, fast and strong, and has lots of raw talent. He can run after the catch and has good hands, though he needs to work on his route-running.
Kennard spent time at USC playing as a down lineman and as a pass-rushing linebacker, but he didn't have a ton of experience working as a middle linebacker. He proceeded to bounce around the field in 2014, posting 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks in six starts and 12 total games -- not overly impressive numbers. That aside, he has the speed, recognition ability and competitiveness to be a factor as the Mike. The Giants have a strong history at middle linebacker, and Kennard looks like he has what it takes to continue that trend.