No one's happier about Jairus Byrd signing his franchise tag than Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who now gets to include an elite safety into his complex, multiple-alignment scheme.
The 2012 second-team All-Pro made 76 total tackles, forced four fumbles, snagged five interceptions and defended six passes last year, per ProFootballReference.com.
However, Buffalo's defense allowed the most touchdowns per drive and the fourth-most points per drive a season ago, per FootballOutsiders.com.
Imagine how bad it would have been without Byrd.
Although Pettine's system is more aggressive and established and has been far more productive than the catastrophically vanilla system Dave Wannstedt installed in Buffalo a year ago—the thought being that, essentially, Pettine's scheme alone should raise the level of play of Buffalo's defense as a whole—Byrd's importance cannot be overstated.
With 18 interceptions in his first four NFL seasons, it's easy to simply classify Byrd as a ball-hawk, but he's much more than that.
Despite being listed at only 5'10'' and 203 pounds, the former Oregon Duck is quite the efficient tackler in run support.
Per ProFootballFocus, Byrd led all safeties with a 19.8 Combined Tackle Efficiency Rating, a metric described as "the total number of attempted tackles a safety made per each missed tackle."
"Complete" is the best way to describe Byrd's game.
To best gauge the safety's significance, we must look at the way Pettine, in all likelihood, will utilize second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore and how the defense will operate in general.
What the Jets were able to do when he was playing was indeed tilt the field. Because of Revis’ outstanding coverage skills, Ryan and his staff left him isolated in man coverage against the opposition’s top receiver at times and shifted their other defenders to the opposite side of the field to help the other defenders.
While we shouldn't expect Gilmore to automatically be Revis-esque in 2013, his size, speed, athleticism and coverage technique make him an ideal candidate to play in a Revis role for Pettine.
Therefore, Byrd will either be the lone over-the-top help for Gilmore, or he'll be asked to roll to the other side of the field to limit big plays away from Gilmore.
Last year, according to PFF, Byrd was the primary defender on 21 passes. While he allowed 16 receptions, they only went for 156 yards, and he intercepted the other five targets.
Though Byrd's not the fastest or necessarily the quickest safety, his range will be a valuable asset with Gilmore often playing a Revis-like, man-to-man role.
Pettine's blitzing propensity is another reason Byrd's range will be a commodity to Buffalo's defense this season.
According to ESPN's Stats and Information Department, per Rich Cimini, the Jets' team blitz percentages were as follows over the past four seasons, with league rank in parenthesis:
- "52.4 percent in '09 (first in NFL), 44.7 percent in '10 (third), 32.8 percent in '11 (12th) and 34.0 percent in '12 (11th)"
Cimini wrote this regarding Pettine's more conservative blitzing approach after becoming more involved in the play-calling duties in 2011: "In fairness to Pettine, he lost the top corner in football, Darrelle Revis, which may have caused him to become more cautious."
Kerry Rhodes was the PFF's top-ranked safety in 2009, and Jim Leonard came in at No. 13 that year, but since then, no Jets safety has ranked higher than 19th.
Pettine should be ecstatic about the chance to implement a blitz-heavy scheme not only with a Revis-type, one-on-one corner, but with something he hasn't had in in a while—an elite safety.
Last year, New York's safety play was lackluster, although LaRon Landry was named to the Pro Bowl:
It's simply not as stressful for a defensive coach to send five or six blitzers on a given play when one of the game's rangiest safeties is roaming center field.
Staying on the topic of underwhelming safeties, the Bills don't exactly have an established squadron in the back end of their secondary outside of Byrd at this juncture.
Byrd's safety mate George Wilson was released in the offseason and signed with the Tennessee Titans. Although Da'Norris Searcy was given a +2.7 grade by PFF in 2012, he played only 279 snaps. Behind him sit rookies Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks who were drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds respectively.
Former second-round pick Aaron Williams, who struggled mightily at cornerback in the NFL, is making the transition to safety.
Despite showing flashes in training camp and the preseason, he's clearly unproven at the position.
Though the talent may be there in Buffalo's safety contingent, having a proven player like Byrd as a part of the group could be the glue that holds everything together, at least in the beginning stages of the 2013 season when it's desperately needed.
Getting a Top 5 safety back into the mix is obviously important for the Bills, as it would be for any organization.
But with an ultra-aggressive defensive coordinator who loves to blitz, a cornerback who could play on an island frequently as Buffalo's Revis and an otherwise unestablished safety corps, Jairus Byrd will be essential to the Bills defense.
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