The free safety position in Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme is an extremely important one. The duties include manning the back quadrant of the field, operating in man coverage with tight ends and slot receivers and even the occasional blitz.
This position requires a player to have great range, instincts and the ability to deliver the thunder upon impact. Most of those aforementioned qualities are not characteristics that describe incumbent starter Thomas DeCoud.
In fact, he may be the complete opposite. In a defense that requires safeties to be playmakers, DeCoud is better off playing in a zone defense and letting the play come to him. He's simply a scheme misfit.
That's why many pundits believe his time in the Peach State could be coming to an abrupt end this offseason. If the Falcons were to jettison DeCoud, there's no doubt in anyone's mind that their No. 1 target would be impending free agent Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills. In some circles, Byrd might be the top target regardless of position.
But for what Atlanta is looking to get from its last line of defense, Byrd could be an acquisition that changes the plight of the entire defense.
He's that good.
At 5'10", 203 pounds, this former college corner—at the University of Oregon—has been lighting up the league since he first stepped foot on the field. His nine interceptions as a rookie led the league, while his five-pick season in 2012 led the AFC.
Byrd is simply the best ball-hawking safety in the league now that former Baltimore Ravens star and future Hall of Famer Ed Reed has met Father Time. As a matter of fact, their styles are very similar.
Byrd is an extremely physical tackler who is built similar to a running back. Despite his lack of height, he has such a strong base that it's hard for any pass-catcher to push him around.
His 4.67 40-yard dash time, per NFLDraftScout.com, is not earth shattering by any stretch of the imagination, but his production shows what having great instincts can do for a player at the safety position.
Here we see Byrd sitting on an island in Cover 1. The ability to have your free safety literally be the last line of defense is crucial for an aggressive, blitz-laden scheme like the Falcons'. This affords your defense opportunity for man coverage underneath as you're not worried about getting beat deep.
Check out the range of Byrd on this go-route.
Byrd trusted his athleticism enough to simply read the quarterback's eyes without entirely cheating over in that direction. Many safeties are easily removed from the play by the QB falsely staring down a receiver and manipulating them to cheat over in that direction.
With great route recognition, the best safeties can wait until the QB starts his actual motion.
Byrd got the jump and did a great job of running and tacking. You'd be surprised how many defensive backs lose track of the ball trying to gather speed, or vice versa.
Byrd also possesses hands normally found on great receivers. His ability to high point the ball gives him an advantage in 50/50-ball situations. Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas gets all the publicity for being a one-man terror at deep safety.
Byrd is every bit his equal. And just like Thomas, Byrd is also a force in the run game.
Here is Byrd coming from deep safety assisting in the run. As great as Byrd's ball-skills are, the physical part of his game is not far behind. He's a ready, willing and able tackler that uses the hit-and-wrap technique to perfection.
Often times tacklers will launch at ball-carriers and not affect the play at all. Applying proper technique is a lost art in today's game.
Byrd tracks the runner like a heat-seeking missile while taking the proper angle.
Byrd stopped a potentially explosive run for a short gain. Having a free safety to pair with strong safety William Moore, that is money against the run and is imperative in the Falcons' scheme.
With the scheme requiring interchangeable safeties, finesse players like DeCoud need not apply—especially in the manufactured blitz game.
Here, Byrd came on a delayed blitz off a defensive audible he initiated.
He disguised it well.
And he also completed the process.
For the Falcons defense to truly take flight, they need to acquire a safety that can affect the game in a multitude of ways. DeCoud was the 83rd-ranked safety, out of 86, according to Pro Football Focus (h/t to NFLtraderumors.com), and it's clearly evident that the change in scheme doesn't fit his skill set.
By acquiring Byrd, the Falcons would field one of the best young secondaries in the league, with Moore and second-year corners Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant in the fold.
All that would be left is to find a pass-rusher...or two.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
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