As Jairus Byrd remains unsigned leading up to training camp and mandatory mini camp, how much do the Bills value the four-year safety? We’ve already determined the level of play he will probably reach over the upcoming seasons, how much that production is worth, and the ideal term for a new contract, but not whether the Bills think they really need him.
Let’s begin with the case for Jairus Byrd.
First, he has been one of the best safeties in the NFL since he burst on to the scene in 2009. After a slight sophomore slump, Byrd established himself as a top-ten safety in 2011 and 2012. The table below shows Byrd’s +EPA ranking by season.
Byrd’s ability to cover the field, make plays on the ball, and still rack up tackles proves his versatility. Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine requires his safeties to adapt to the wide range of looks he asks the defense to show the offense. This article from Buffalo Rumblings does a great job breaking down the many roles LaRon Landry was asked to carry out last season in New York.
Finally, Byrd’s late-game takeaways sealed or won four of Buffalo’s six wins last season. His interception from Matt Cassel was the last play of the Kansas City game.
An overtime interception in Arizona effectively ended the game after the Bills offense was dealing with inconsistency and turnovers. (One of those turnovers was that Brad Smith deep pass, remember that?)
Miami forfeited the ball to Byrd twice in last year’s Thursday night game, as the safety came through with a fumble recovery (forced by Stephon Gilmore) as well as a big time interception. The fumble recovery set up a field goal, which put the Bills ahead by ten points in the first quarter. The interception came with just two minutes left in the game as the Dolphins were compiling a comeback and very likely saved the game for the offensively challenged Bills (the only Buffalo touchdown came on a Leodis McKelvin punt return).
While Byrd didn’t win the Jacksonville game on his own, he caught an interception late in the fourth quarter the effectively ended the rainy game (yes that is Kevin Elliott chasing Byrd in the photo below). All Ryan Fitzpatrick had to do afterwards was take a knee.
Since he’s so good, is there any indication that the Bills might not need or want Jairus Byrd?
The safety position has become something of a logjam since the Draft a couple months ago. Buffalo drafted two safeties and announced the plan to transition Aaron Williams from cornerback to safety. The list of available safeties on the roster, aside from Byrd, is Da’Norris Searcy, Aaron Williams, Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks, Dominique Ellis, and Mana Silva. That’s six.
While Pettine’s defenses in New York relied on dynamic safety play, those defenses also had the luxury of a top-level cornerback. Darrelle Revis came into his own as one of the best shutdown corners in the league during Pettine’s tenure, and those Jets defenses benefitted from Revis Island taking up half the field. Maybe the future of the Bills hinges more on the success of Stephon Gilmore rather than Jairus Byrd. (For more of Gilmore, check out this breakdown of the rookie’s play last season.)
That said, if the Bills were to sign Byrd to a long-term deal in the ballpark of $7 million per season, the defense would have a few expensive players and could potentially suffer cap casualties in the coming years. If you assume the salary cap in the coming years is unchanged (a lot of factors there) and the defense is allotted half of the team’s cap hit, four players could be responsible for 50-60% of the defense’s total salary. The table below compares cap hits (in millions of dollars) for those four players compared to half of the current salary cap ($123 million).
To put that total into context, Marcell Dareus will become an unrestricted free agent in 2016 and Gilmore will be unrestricted in 2017. Signing Byrd and keeping players like Kyle Williams (I’m a fan of #95) and Mark Anderson might reduce Buffalo’s ability to keep their young talent.
Some teams do a great job replacing aging talent with young and inexpensive players (Packers are great at it), but Buffalo needs to be able to keep its good players. Hopefully keeping one good player like Byrd doesn’t preclude them from keeping other good players down the line.
So what should the Bills do? Give in and sign Byrd at all costs? Hope he accepts the franchise tag and try for another deal next year? We’ll wrap us this series and answer those questions next time.