Victor Butler is out to prove his lost season didn't set him back, and that he can still help a Saints defense which fared far better than expected without him.
The outside linebacker had been penciled in as a starter when he arrived in New Orleans more than a year ago, lured away from Dallas in free agency by Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who had also coached Butler with the Cowboys.
But an unlucky collision with running back Mark Ingram during one of the Saints' final voluntary, non-contact practices of last offseason resulted in a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Butler's left knee. Although the Saints initially provided hope the entire season was not lost by designating Butler as eligible to return from injured reserve, he never made back for New Orleans' march to the NFC playoffs.
"Missing a whole year was heartbreaking," Butler said after an offseason practice this week. "I was feeling horrible, but the great thing is you get to watch great guys out there make a playoff run and now coming back you have to be a part of that."
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Butler had been brought in with the hope he could help shore up a unit that had allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards in 2012. Even with injuries to Butler, Will Smith, Jon Vilma, and other veteran members of New Orleans' defense, Ryan, then in his first season overseeing the Saints' defense, managed get the players he had left to perform well.
In 2013, New Orleans ranked fourth in yards allowed with 305 per game, down about 135 yards per game from the previous campaign. Now that Butler has rejoined the unit, he's avoiding talk about whether he fits in the starting lineup and is simply pledging to find a role which will make New Orleans' defense better.
"Whether that's coming off the bench or coming out the tunnel first, you feel like you get out there in (offseason practices) and minicamps and training camp and let your play do the talking for you," Butler said. "You go out there and make plays, make mistakes and you earn the trust and confidence of your teammates and the rest of it just starts to follow."
Ryan, meanwhile, sounds eager to finally make use of a player he lobbied the club to acquire.
"It's great to get him back out there. He looks healthy. I can't wait," Ryan said this week. "This isn't a full-contact camp, so that's when I think Victor will really show up where he's off his injury."
Butler arrived in New Orleans after signing a two-year, $3 million free-agent contract. Before that, he'd spent his first four seasons in Dallas, which selected him out of Oregon State in the fourth round of the 2009 draft.
A defensive end in college, Butler switched to outside linebacker in Dallas' 3-4 defensive scheme and served in a backup role behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
In 2012, Butler played in all 16 games with one start and was credited with a career-high 24 tackles, three sacks, a tackle for a loss, three passes defended and a forced fumble. He also played on special teams, a role in which he was credited with four stops and a forced fumble.
Butler had benchmarks in his Saints contract that would have allowed him to void the second year of the deal and enter free agency after one season — something he was expected to do as a starter.
However, his injury has forced him to play out the contract.
"Whether I had three years left or three months left on the contract, it's always important to go out and put your best foot forward, not just for yourself but you've got 10 other guys going out there on that field that depend on you to do your job and do it well," Butler said. "That's all I really want to do: Go out there and do my job for the 10 other guys on the field. When you're making plays and playing good football, the rest of that stuff will come."
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