Jairus Byrd is arguably the best free safety in the NFL. He may not be the hardest hitter like Dashon Goldson, or a turnover machine like Ed Reed in his prime, but right now Byrd is at the top of his position and the Bills need to pay him like such.
The biggest reason Byrd is better than his constituents is that he does everything extremely well and is not limited in any scenario. He causes turnovers, is a sure tackler, isn’t a liability in coverage, and can blitz. There is no other free safety that does so much that well.
Byrd’s recent play after a slow and tenuous beginning is the reason the two parties are sure to face another stalemate. Byrd started with a training camp holdout, then plantar fasciitis, and then finally returned to play seeing half the defensive snaps in his first two games. But since then he has been on a tear and the most consistent player outside of Mario Williams for this Bills defense.
Within the last five games Byrd has totaled four interceptions, 20 tackles and one sack. There is no other safety on the Bills roster that could have equaled those totals, and if the Bills were to lose him in free agency then it’s a guarantee that the defense will suffer a setback in the pass coverage and turnover department.
Even more important is that Byrd represents a key piece needed for Mike Pettine’s defense. In order for it to work properly there must be a pass rush and a coverage safety to feast on the errant passes the quarterback will throw while under pressure.
Thus far, the Bills have found the pass rush combo with Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus currently pacing the league. With Byrd in the backfield, the defense increases formidably and is less susceptible to big plays. That is as long as the surrounding parts, namely corner backs and linebackers, are competent enough.
What makes Byrd special is that he was never a safety until he got to the NFL. In college at Oregon he was a corner who relied less on his speed, but more on his ability to read his receiver and react to the ball in the air to make plays. He understood coverage and how to play the man and the ball when it was in the air. Once he was drafted in the second round in 2009, the Bills moved him to safety and allowed his natural instincts to take over and the results have been positive all the way around.
Currently the highest paid safety in the NFL is Eric Weddle who recently signed a 40 million deal for five years in 2011. The Bills should offer that contract to Byrd in a heartbeat. Though if I’m Byrd’s agent Eugene Parker, I would go Teddy KGB from Rounders and tell Bills GM Doug Whaley to “pay that man his money” and demand a contract better than Weddle’s.
For Whaley, he has three options: franchise Byrd again for a one year price of around eight million for one year, give him the contract he wants, or let him test free agency. The Bills will have roughly 18 million in cap space next year and can afford the contract Byrd is looking for. But if Whaley chooses door number three and lets him walk then everyone connected with the Bills, except Byrd, will lose.