Hakeem Butler can be a No. 1 WR, even if he doesn’t end Iowa State’s NFL Draft curse

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The versatile deep threat could be Iowa State’s first first-round pick since 1973.

Hakeem Butler is a great wide receiver prospect. The question is whether he can be Iowa State’s streak breaker.

The Cyclones deep threat has the chance to be his university’s first first-round selection since 1973 when the immortal George Amundson (74 carries, 194 yards as an NFL tailback) went 14th overall to the Houston Oilers. He will almost certainly be the first ISU wide receiver to hear his name called at the draft since Tracy Henderson in 1985.

At 6’5, Butler has the length to be an elite red zone threat — the prototypical “go up and get it” threat in the corner of the end zone. With 4.48-second 40-yard dash speed, he’s also a proven burner who can tear up opposing defenses down the sideline. While questions remain about his hands, he’s a physical presence who feasted in the offense-happy realm of the Big 12.

A spot in the first round on April 25 would be a major honor for a player who helped push his program back to relevance. The former two-star recruit — the high school standout whose only other FBS offers were from Houston and New Mexico State — will be one of the 2019 NFL Draft’s greatest success stories. And his trajectory suggests he’ll only get better as a pro.

Butler was an invaluable piece of Matt Campbell’s renaissance in Ames

Iowa State has typically been a blind spot for college football excellence. The Big 12 member has occasionally been the source of exciting upsets if you were willing to dig through the rubble of three- and four-win seasons, but was more often a sigil of disappointment. When Campbell began his second year as the Cyclones’ head coach, the program was working through an 11-year streak of failing to crack the AP Top 25.

That changed that season, when the Cyclones’ eight-win 2017 gave way to an eight-win 2018 — the first time Iowa State had recorded 16 wins in a two-year span since 1978. And a major part of the offense that grew strong enough to fight for a top spot in the scoring-heavy Big 12 was the occasionally uncoverable Butler.

Butler’s career started slowly — a redshirt year under former coach Paul Rhoads, then a nine-catch, two-touchdown campaign in Campbell’s debut season in 2016. He went from bit player to supporting role in 2017, offering a counterpunch to reliable (and massive) All-Big 12 target Allen Lazard. While Lazard was the team’s receiving stud (941 yards, 10 TDs) and David Montgomery was the engine that kept the Cyclones moving on the ground (1,146 yards, 11 touchdowns), Butler made his case as one of the top deep threats in a conference full of them, averaging 17 yards per catch.

His 2018 was even better, despite the added defensive attention created by Lazard’s graduation. He had six 100+ receiving yard games, including a 174-yard day against Oklahoma and a whopping 192 (on nine catches) in Iowa State’s bowl loss to Washington State. His yards per catch exploded to 22.0 — the most in the Big 12 by more than four yards and third-best in the FBS. Part of that was thanks to his deep-ball speed.

Another factor was the burgeoning strength that made him difficult to topple downfield:

What makes Butler special enough to break Iowa State ignominious first-round streak?

We talked about the size/speed thing, right? Butler has cornerback-discouraging measureables that give him major advantages both downfield and on out routes. He’s also got great body control with the ball in the air, twisting and jumping to make adjustments on imperfectly thrown passes.

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If you need a place to throw the ball on third-and-long, just look toward Butler’s back shoulder:

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He also showed up when his Cyclones needed him the most. In two bowl games he had a total of 14 catches and 303 yards. In showdowns against Big 12 power Oklahoma, he averaged 35 yards per catch (seven for 245). In his first CyHawk game against Iowa as a starter, he torched the Hawkeyes for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns, albeit in a loss. Of his eight career 100+ yard receiving games, five came against teams with winning records.

His size makes him an above-average blocker for teams looking to bounce runs outside. Plus, he’s been working out with Calvin Johnson, who knows a thing or two about being an NFL downfield burner at 6’5.

Why might Butler languish on draft boards?

As previously noted, past drafts haven’t exactly been kind to ISU talent. Lazard looked like a possible Day 2 pickup heading into last year’s event, then lasted seven rounds without hearing his name called. Another all-conference talent with big size (6’5) and good speed (4.55-second 40), he bounced from the Jaguars’ practice squad to the Packers’ roster and is no lock to see the field on Sundays in 2019.

Butler is more athletic than Lazard and is coming off a more productive season than his former teammate had ever had, but it’s possible teams aren’t convinced by his big numbers in a conference that wasn’t exactly known for its defense.

The other big issue with Butler — one that can’t really be measured with timers and route trees — is his propensity to drop the ball. He had 19 drops his last two seasons on Iowa State, a giant red flag that suggests his concentration isn’t quite ready for the dialed-up pressure NFL defensive backs will bring.

His catch rate was just 57.3 percent — a below-average mark for his cohort of draftable receiving prospects (though his deep threat bonafides are so strong he was still a top performer in yards per catch and yards per target regardless). Butler could be a touchdown threat every time he runs a fly route, but there’s also a significant chance he’ll frustrate fans by losing sight of catchable balls.

Butler’s status in mock drafts has been more volatile than most potential first-round picks. Dan Kadar’s two-round mock back in March left him on the board until the Texans and the 55th selection — four spots behind his slot on Kadar’s big board. ESPN’s Todd McShay has him waiting until the Lions grab him at pick No. 88.

Music City Miracles believes he’d be a worthy investment of the Titans’ first-round pick at No. 19. Arrowhead Pride wants to make Patrick Mahomes even tougher to plan against by bringing him to Kansas City with the 29th pick.

Muddying up his projection is a group of talented, but flawed, wideouts campaigning for the honor of being the top receiver selected at the draft. D.K. Metcalf’s absurd combine performance could make him the first WR off the board. Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown — who outdueled Butler with a nine-catch, 191-yard performance when the Sooners and Cyclones met last fall — is also a valid top option. Others like A.J. Brown, N’Keal Harry, and Deebo Samuels could be the first target to hear their names called in Nashville as well.

But unlike Lazard, Butler appears to be a lock to be drafted. Whoever acquires him will get a game-breaking talent who could be a constant Pro Bowl presence as long as he can overcome the brief lapses that served as potholes in his run from overlooked recruit to NFL wideout.

That’s a big issue for teams to consider when making their draft boards, but it’s the only thing keeping him from being a third down and deep threat cheat code for the right team.

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