Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five. Not six. Not seven. Not eight.
That's not a presumptuous tally of NBA championships made by LeBron James while sitting on a South Beach dais, but the number of interceptions Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd had during a scintillating rookie campaign in 2009—a campaign that vaulted him from a little-known second-round pick to an absolute force in the secondary.
Entering his fourth year, Byrd has recorded fewer than half of his 2009 interception total in the two seasons since. Yet he has still staked his claim as Buffalo's best all-around player on defense and elevated his game to levels just hinted at in his rookie year. Pro Football Focus gave Byrd the third-highest grade of any safety in 2011 and extolled his virtues as a multi-faceted stud who has far exceeded expectations.
Quite simply, the Bills scored a top-15 pick and paid only a second-round price.
It's important to note that what Byrd did during that freshman campaign was not flukey; there is a mix of instinct, positioning and artistry that allows a player to be in the right place at the right time, and the University of Oregon product exhibited all three.
On one of his three Week-6 interceptions of Mark Sanchez, he saw Braylon Edwards beat Terrence McGee down the right sideline and went over to close off the top of the route. When Edwards bobbled the ball, as he has a tendency to do, Byrd was right there to snatch it and start running the other way.
Later in that same game, Sanchez looked for Edwards deep again, this time on the opposite side of the field. Byrd, playing deep, assisted Drayton Florence in coverage, making an incredibly athletic grab of an underthrown ball.
So the instincts on the ball were there from the start. What's Byrd added since?
He's made himself an indispensable part of the run defense, become more adept in one-on-one coverage and improved on what was already one of his greatest strengths—tackling. With their starting free safety racking up 98 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack in 2011, the Bills would be hard-pressed to ask for a more complete performance.
But they're expecting one.
More importantly, so is Byrd. From himself and his teammates. In a recent interview on WGR 550's The Howard Simon Show, Byrd outlined the prevailing feeling coming into the 2012 season:
"Every year you come into camp, and it's like, your goal is 'we wanna make the playoffs this year.' But now with the stuff that we've done, acquisitions we've made, you have that true hope. You know what I mean? It's real hope. And guys are really buying into that."
Almost as critical as his evolution as a player is his evolution as a teammate.
With new faces on the secondary in the last two seasons—Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore, Ron Brooks and Da'Norris Searcy all look to play big roles in 2012—Byrd has been asked to take on a leadership position:
"Guys coming in, and you just take on that role," said Byrd. "They're looking at you now, to help them out, get them through things. It's a process that's exciting."
Being an experienced veteran may be relatively new to Byrd, but if he can impart some of his poise and instinct to his younger teammates, he can help Buffalo deal with being relatively green on the back end. If his training camp performances are any indication of what he has to share, the younger members of that secondary are in great hands indeed.
The newer players in that secondary very well could make a big impact this season, but it's a pair of offseason signings that might pay the biggest dividends for Byrd and his compatriots.
For most of his tenure in The Queen City, Byrd has been able to accomplish plenty behind an ineffective defensive line and a porous linebacking corps—two areas that will almost assuredly not be as deficient this coming season.
"You get that pass rush, and one, the quarterbacks don't get to hold the ball as long, so you're covering for less time," Byrd said of the new defensive line. "Two, the pass rush allows us to put pressure on them, so their balls, if they do get them off, there might be a little air. You might get high-sail balls, overthrown balls, tipped balls, which all counts for turnovers.
Byrd is of course alluding to the acquisitions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as the apparently revitalized Shawne Merriman. With Buffalo's front four set to penetrate any offensive lane that stands before it, the secondary stands to reap the benefits.
Regardless of what the revamped defensive line is able to do, however, the Bills have to be supremely confident in the talent they have at free safety. They have to be supremely confident that a man who has already elevated his game in each of three consecutive seasons will continue to do so.
Put opposing offenses on notice: The Byrdman cometh.
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