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Steelers' Under the Radar Move

by J.T. Toth

Photo of Hakeem Butler courtesy of Tony Capobianco.

In 2001, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed a former Denver Broncos first round draft pick who had just completed a championship season in the XFL and would become a starting quarterback in 2002. His name was Tommy Maddox. Maddox would lead Pittsburgh to a 10-5-1 season and a division title after taking over for Kordell Stewart in week 4. Maddox would go on to win the 2022 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Fast forward to 2023, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are dipping back into the resurgent XFL talent pool once more. They’ve invited to rookie camp a former NFL 4th round pick—wide receiver Hakeem Butler—to join them in the South Side later this summer.

Butler, 6’5” 230 lbs., was considered a unique prospect coming out of college because of his size and speed. Butler ran a 4.49 at the 2019 combine and was a player on many war room radar screens.

As with Maddox, Butler could not get any footing in the NFL in his first go-round. He never saw the field with the Arizona Cardinals during his rookie campaign and was cut by the team before his 2nd season began.

He latched on with the Eagles in 2020 and was converted into a tight end, finally seeing action in his first few NFL games that year. However, he was again cut before the start of the 2021 season and would head to the Canadian Football League before joining the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL.

Butler performed well this past season in the XFL, hauling in 51 receptions for 599 yards and a league leading 8 touchdowns which re-opened some NFL eyes, including Steelers' GM, Omar Khan, and Head Coach, Mike Tomlin. But with George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, Allen Robinson, and Calvin Austin seemingly set to be the Steelers' top 4 receivers for 2023, why take a flyer on Butler?

The reason is straightforward—In the past few seasons, the Steelers' 5th wide receiver has become a larger part of the offense than expected. The past three campaigns have seen the Steelers get quality starts and unexpected playing time from reserves like Ray-Ray McCloud, Steven Sims, Gunner Olszewski, and Myles Boykin due to injuries and need at the wideout position.

In the case of Butler, some players happen to be late bloomers or weren’t ready for the transition from the college game to the pros. The Steelers are taking a low-risk gamble, granting Butler a “third time’s a charm” chance to show he can play at the game’s highest level. And knowing they were close to making the Butler signing official before the 2023 Draft in April may have allowed the team to ignore the wide receiver position at large.

Draft 412 is not saying that Hakeem Butler will end up being as big of a signing as Tommy Maddox was, but who says lightning can’t strike twice?

NOTES- Steelers also signed OT-Chidi Okeke from the San Antonio Brahmas of the XFL.

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