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The Buffalo Bills have a solid safety tandem in Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. Last season, the two combined for over 200 tackles, and the veteran/youngster on the rise have given the Bills a nice one-two punch at the position. With a bolstered pass rush due to the signings of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the safeties will have a better opportunity to make plays. Lets take a look at how the free safety position stacks up.
Jairus Byrd is one of the up and coming free safeties in the entire National Football League. Last year he racked up 98 tackles, a sack, forced three fumbles, and picked off three passes. In his four seasons since being a second round pick out of Oregon, Byrd has made 232 tackles, two sacks, deflected 21 passes while picking off 13, and forced six fumbles. He has been getting better and better each year against the run, while his ball-hawking abilities have gotten better, despite the decrease in interceptions since his nine picks in his rookie year.
Entering a contract year, Joe Buscaglia of WGR has high praise for the ball-hawking safety, but believes it could be tough to re-gign Byrd, stating:
Byrd has transformed himself into a complete NFL safety. His nine interceptions in 2009 was certainly impressive. However, it’s his instincts recognition, tackling, and play-making ability that showed through as a complete package in 2011. He was the best defensive player for the Bills throughout last season. I also believe He’ll be the toughest player to re-sign for Buffalo. They need to start on him early and not let the situation potentially affect his play throughout the season.
However, both Byrd and General Manager Buddy Nix have had different opinions.
“We definitely want those guys back,” Nix told Buffalobills.com. ’I’ve told them. They know that. As far as us working on contracts we’ve been kind of busy. I think they want to be back and we want them back and when the time comes we’ll get started on it.”
“We believe in starting early on these guys, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll be in contact and have some dialogue. We’d like to get these guys done. I don’t like for them to come down to what happened with Stevie Johnson. I don’t like to come down to three or four days before they hit the market.”
ProFootballFocus.com, a website dedicated to football sabermetrics, also had extremely high remarks regarding Byrd’s 2011 campaign.
This was the year where Byrd established himself as one of the league’s top safeties, with a season that earned him our third-highest grade of all his peers (+13.0). He broke up seven passes to go with his three interceptions, while only allowing 51.5% of passes into coverage to be completed. What’s more, for a player who spends most of his time playing deep (84.1% of all snaps), he notched up 35 tackles in run defense, good for 16th of all safeties. He’s a rare beast; a free safety who is active on every play.
Best Performance: Week 16 versus Denver (+3.3)
Key Stat: Missed one tackle for every 14.3 attempts; eighth-best of all safeties.
Byrd is a key cornerstone of the Bills’ secondary, and 2012 could be a great season for him, considering all the pieces added around him in both the secondary and pass rush, coupled with the move back to a more familiar 4-3, Cover 2 defense.
Behind Byrd, the Bills have unproven talent at the free safety position. Nick Saenz, a 22-year old undrafted rookie out of Houston is listed as the No. 2 free safety behind Jairus Byrd. He was one of the two players signed after tryouts, with tight end/ H-Back, Dorin Dickerson being the other. At Houston, Saenz played 52 games at free safety, recording 248 tackles, five of which were for a loss, picked off five passes, deflected 17, and forced three fumbles.
Saenz’s play at Houston, coupled with his performance in rookie tryouts earned him a spot on the roster, but he is a project at this point.
After playing quarterback at Georgia Tech, the Buffalo Bills signed Joshua Nesbitt as an undrafted free agent last year. He was relegated to the practice squad, where he began his transition to free safety. The 6’1″ 213-pounder has the ideal size for a free safety, and is the ACC’s all-time leading rusher as a quarterback, running for 2.806 yards, while scoring 35 touchdowns on the ground. However, he is listed behind Nick Saenz on the BuffaloBills.com team depth chart, so it’s unclear what his status is with the team at this point.
Delano Howell began his collegiate career at Stanford as a running back before making the switch to free safety. A first-team All-Pac 12 selection, the 22-year old racked up 190 tackles and seven interceptions in 34 games with the Cardinal. He was unable to participate in Offseason Training Activities due to his class schedule at Stanford, but the fact that the Bills signed him knowing he wouldn’t be able to participate until training camp speaks volumes of how they see him fitting in.
There obviously isn’t any competition for the starting job at this position, but there will be some serious competition as to who earns the backup role. Both Nick Saenz and Delano Howell made significant impacts in their collegiate careers and have an advantage over Joshua Nesbitt regarding the nuances of the position. This will definitely be an interesting training camp battle to keep an eye on, especially if Byrd goes down this year, as he has been plagued with hernias during his initial NFL years.