The Butler Did It: How One Text Sent Hakeem Butler Back To the NFL

Hakeem Butler makes a catch during his pregame warmups againstthe XFL's DC Defenders. (Getty Images)

Written and Edited by Zach Kangieser

June 4, 2023

Believe it or not, Hakeem Butler’s comeback began with an Instagram message.

When St. Louis Battlehawks coach Anthony Becht checked his phone late in November last year, he was met with a message from “@410keem”, Butler’s account. In part, it read:

“Good Afternoon Coach. I know the draft has passed for the XFL and teams may soon be filling up if they aren’t already filled but I was wondering who to contact or how to go about possibly getting a roster/camp opportunity just to show what I can do. Any information at all would be great I truly just want a chance to show that I can play, which I know I can compete at the highest level. I want to thank you in advance for anything you do.” 

Butler's message to Becht. (@XFLBattlehawks)

Becht ended up keeping the message in mind as he prepared to make another set of additions to his roster. The XFL was in fact having two drafts in preparation for their 2023 season, with one on New Year’s Day meant for players that had been obligated to other leagues, like the CFL and USFL, at the time of their original draft. Butler had been one of the players in this category, having been part of the CFL’s Edmonton Elks a few months prior.

Butler up to this point had been a talented player who literally had never gotten his shot since his foray into pro football in 2019. He had been a standout receiver at Iowa State, racking up 101 catches, 2,015 yards and 16 TDs across his two seasons with the Cyclones. In particular it was his 2018 season that made him a standout player, as he went for 1,318 yards and 9 TDs that year, averaging over twenty yards per catch and setting the school record for receiving yards in a season (funny enough, his QB at Iowa State that year was none other than Brock Purdy). 

Standing at 6’5”and weighing in at about 230 pounds, Butler had a strong style of play that often saw him using his superior size and strength to win on jump balls and bully opposing secondaries into giving him extra yards. But he was quick, too, with a 4.48 second 40-yard dash time and solid agility to boot.

Butler as an Iowa State Cyclone. (Bruce Matson/Dynasty League Football)

Ultimately, Butler decided to forgo his senior season and declared for the NFL Draft. He was a fourth-round pick in 2019, with the Arizona Cardinals selecting him 103rd overall; he ended up signing a four-year deal. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken hand in the preseason, fell down the depth chart, and was placed on injured reserve for the entire 2019 season. COVID limited his opportunities to move back up on the depth chart, and he was released by the Cardinals after just one year. He ended up 

Less than a month later, Butler was signed to the Philadelphia Eagles, converting to tight end to serve as depth after Philly lost Dallas Goedert to injury. He spent a few weeks as an active TE in the 2020 season but never caught a pass (he only saw one target) and was eventually relegated to the practice squad. The Eagles also ended up letting him go after just one year. He spent the 2021 season without a team, but his career earnings thus far had totaled just shy of $1.5 million (according to Spotrac), meaning he had some time before he could look for his next opportunity.

2022 saw Butler trying out the Canadian Football League, seeing if he could possibly find playing time up north. He got two opportunities with two teams, the BC Lions and the aforementioned Edmonton Elks. Neither of them ended up panning out well for him, as he only had stints on both teams’ practice squads before they decided he wasn’t worth it, and Butler was looking for another opportunity again.

But Hakeem Butler did not quit. He continued to pursue any chance of playing he could, in the hopes that someone would see him hungry and give him a chance to eat. His Instagram message to Anthony Becht ended up being the catalyst for that next opportunity.

Becht and the St. Louis Battlehawks ended up selecting Butler in the fifth round of the 2023 XFL Supplemental Draft, meaning he was going to get the chance to catch passes from another former NFL player. A.J. McCarron had spent nearly a decade in the league as a veteran backup and spot starter before choosing to play for the Battlehawks to give his kids a chance to watch him. Going into the season, McCarron was considered the XFL’s best QB. Butler had a prime opportunity to make a connection with an NFL veteran and show people how talented he was.

2023: Butler’s Comeback Year 

Butler goes airborn after making a catch against the San Antonio Brahmas.
(Scott Tsoetsch/Getty Images)

Butler’s first full season on a team began decently against the San Antonio Brahmas. He had only four targets but caught three of them for 32 yards, including an 18-yard jump ball he snagged for a touchdown. In Week 2, he produced another major highlight reel play. Just past midfield, Butler started from the slot and caught a pass from McCarron that was about a dozen yards past the line of scrimmage before turning on the jets, stiff-arming a smaller defender to create separation before outrunning him for a 44-yard score. It was a big play that established him as a potential threat in future games and really began to generate interest.

He capitalized on that interest with his best game yet in Week 3. Against the stout DC Defenders, Butler caught 9 passes for 105 yards and a score. He seemingly picked up a first down every time he touched the ball, forcing the opposing secondary off of him for extra yardage on nearly every catch. While the Battlehawks fell to the Defenders, losing 34-28, Butler continued to show off his talent, going from big play threat to consistent option.

He did cool off over the next few weeks as other XFL teams began to adjust, moving more defenders to cover him and generally not letting him go deep much. However, those adjustments both showed off his nature as a threat and allowed other Battlehawks more looks, particularly WR2 Darrius Shepherd, who stepped up as Butler took heat off of him. Even still, Butler caught at least five passes in each of the next three games, including a 9 catch, 86 yard outing in a rematch against the Defenders. Weeks 7 and 8 saw Butler struggle the most, as he only caught seven total passes in those two games while Shepherd became the primary target; even then, he remained a red zone threat, scoring short touchdowns in both weeks.

Week 9 saw Butler leave the game early for undisclosed reasons during a crucial rematch against Seattle, which the Battlehawks lost. He saw two contested targets in a disappointing performance, and fans worried he’d end the season on a low note. Still, he had one game left to play. With the Battlehawks looking to run up the score against the struggling Orlando Guardians, Butler’s physicality would again be called upon, and he would answer.

When he needed to put up his best performance, he did, racking up an incredible 9 catch, 164 yard, 2 touchdown performance. He cruised past the Guardians defense, alternating between showing off his route running by beating out corners and flashing his strength with stiff arms and brute force. On his longest play of the game, he did both, breaking away from the secondary to snag a twenty yard pass, then tanking a hit and sprinting off to the house for an extra forty yards and six points. He was as dominant a force as nearly any other offensive player in the league when his team most needed him.

Butler's end of year stats. (@XFLBattlehawks)

Unfortunately for St. Louis, their blowout victory over Orlando wasn’t enough to extend their season into the playoffs. Still, Butler finished the year with an impressive statline; he was second in the XFL in catches (51) and receiving yards (599) and led the league in receiving touchdowns, with eight. Hakeem’s road back to an NFL roster continued when he was signed to a contract on May 16th with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s a prove it deal: one year, $870,000. But since he signed the contract, Butler has been putting in work at the Steelers’ OTAs.

According to Steelers beat writer Chris Adamski, Butler has been performing well in second-team reps at OTAs, primarily getting passes from Mitch Trubisky but consistently producing. Steelers starting QB Kenny Pickett also has seemed to approve of Butler’s playmaking ability. But the true challenge isn’t getting back to the NFL, but staying there.

Can Hakeem Make The Cut? 

Butler (center) extends his arms to make a catch at Pittsburgh Steelers OTAs. (Steelers Nation)

At the moment, the Steelers have twelve WRs signed, including Butler, and they’re expected to only keep six on the final 53-man roster. Three of those receivers are all but guaranteed to make it: former NFL All-Pro Diontae Johnson, breakout rookie George Pickens, and trade acquisition Allen Robinson. After those three, the next likeliest WR to make the cut is Calvin Austin, who, like Hakeem Butler, was a fourth round pick that missed his entire rookie season due to injury. Austin has excellent speed that sets him apart from the rest of the Steelers receiving corps.

That probably leaves just two spots for eight receivers to jockey for during the remainder of OTAs and the preseason. Those aren’t the best odds, but outside of the four above names mentioned, none of the other names on the current rosters stand out much, with no one having more than 53 total receiving yards in the 2022 NFL season. This means that outside of simply performing well, everyone will need something to stand out from the crowd. Butler has the advantage of having nine full games of film, even against weaker competition, so we can see where he sticks out.

Obviously, Butler’s massive frame is a huge boon. His towering 6’5” frame means he can easily create mismatches against lighter corners. During his XFL stint, this was especially apparent when he played the middle of the field. The Battlehawks used him a ton from the slot, and he took advantage, using his physical ability to turn short slants into first downs and longer passes into scores. The Steelers seem to like utilizing larger receivers in a similar way, with Chase Claypool formerly operating out of the slot for them and tight end Pat Friermuth being used as the bulky slot man once Claypool was traded to the Chicago Bears. Pittsburgh did trade for Allen Robinson to try to make him fit that bill, but Butler could very well utilize that role for himself.

Additionally, his massive frame comes with a seven-foot wingspan, giving him an incredible reach and catch radius. Passes that are just a bit outside for most receivers are catchable for him and he has a very good contested catch rate, meaning QBs can have a slightly larger margin for error when they throw his way. This establishes Butler as a sort of safety net, and for a developing quarterback like Kenny Pickett, a safety net can always be appreciated.

Still, Butler has his flaws. He fell out of the NFL in the first place due to a tendency to drop those catchable passes, and he struggled to remain consistent early in his career. If he cannot be consistent at NFL practices and in the preseason, he’ll be just another spring football hopeful who got a cup of coffee in the big leagues before getting sent back down.

But his XFL footage suggests that Butler has been able to fix his drop issues, at least partially. Getting consistent practice time and passes from an NFL veteran in A.J. McCarron certainly helped him develop a bit, even as he hits 27 years of age. There’s reason to believe he can keep his drops limited and he continues to catch passes from Mitch Trubisky and Pickett, and if he can do that, his odds are good.

Whether or not Hakeem Butler becomes an active Pittsburgh Steeler will remain to be seen; we likely won’t find out until August or September if he’s good to go. But his unique frame, his athletic ability, and his chance to redevelop himself in the XFL lend credence to the idea. He has a lot of things his current teammates don’t and when it comes down to who gets the last few roster spots, that uniqueness will make him stick out. No guarantees can be made, but don’t be surprised if Butler serves Kenny Pickett as a bruising slot receiver, one who finally found his NFL spot in the black-and-gold.