Now that some players with expiring contracts have re-upped with their home teams and others have been tagged, there is one potential free agent who stands above the rest: Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
Thirty-two red carpets will not be rolled out for Byrd, but multiple red carpets are being prepared for him as you read these words. Teams have money burning holes in their pockets, improvements to be made and tickets to be sold, so Byrd will be in high demand. And he should be. He is a fine football player.
"He has great instincts and ball awareness," a personnel director said. "He's a leader back there. When the ball is in the air, he finds it."
He also is the only potential difference-maker of the unrestricted free agents who aren't tagged, according to five front-office men I spoke with.
"There aren't many like him," said one NFC high-ranking exec. "Athletic play-making safeties are hard to find."
Since he has been in the league, Byrd has more interceptions and forced fumbles than any other safety. He has come up with 33 interceptions or forced fumbles in 73 games—or one every 2.2 games.
"Interceptions change games, and that's what he does," said a pro personnel director. "When you have an elite talent like that, you better pay him. The fall off after the elite guys is pretty drastic. Most of the league is playing with safeties they just hope get lined up right."
The issue is how much Byrd is worth. The word on the street is he wants north of $9 million per year. That is a lot of cabbage for a safety—any safety—and that explains why the Bills apparently will allow him to get to the open market.
Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom said you don't want safeties at the top of your salary pyramid. That wisdom is changing as the passing game is becoming more prominent. A safety who can cover can be an antidote for the new-age, athletic, pass-catching tight end, and he can allow a defensive coordinator freedom to use his cornerbacks and linebackers more aggressively.
"The safety position has become more valuable in recent years," a senior executive said. "It's more important than ever to line up in the right place, and it's never been more difficult to overcome mistakes at that position. You also need to have more interchangeability at the position now, because offenses are stretching the whole field. Before, it was strong safety in the box, free safety deep. It's not that way anymore."
Many teams still remain hesitant to invest an inordinate amount in a safety unless that safety clearly tilts the field, though.
"I'm not in the market of overpaying for safeties," an AFC front-office man said. "I'd rather pay cornerbacks. You can find safeties. They are easy to replace if you have good corners."
There is some debate as to how much of a difference Byrd can make. Two of the front-office men rate him as the second-best safety in the game behind only Earl Thomas and ahead of Eric Berry. But three front-office men agreed he does not rate with Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu when they were in their primes.
"When you went against those guys, you had to give a guy on scout team a special-colored jersey so you knew where they were," the senior exec said. "With Byrd, you have to be aware of him, but he's not quite in that category. Byrd is a good player, not a great one."
The pro personnel man said Byrd is "not an elite athlete. He is a good athlete with ball skills."
Despite the plays Byrd made on the ball in the NFL, some front-office men have a hard time forgetting his pro day back in 2009. He ran a 4.71 40-yard dash.
I spoke with four scouts about him before that draft, and none had him rated higher than a third-round pick. He was chosen by the Bills in the second round, but a lingering concern remains that eventually the fact that he is less than elite athletically may trump the fact that he is elite instinctively.
They say there are no perfect free agents, and Byrd is not perfect. But he is the closest free agent to perfect that the 2014 class has to offer.
• Bill Belichick and Greg Schiano spent a lot of time together in Indianapolis at the combine, but don't count on Schiano joining the Patriots staff anytime soon. Despite speculation to the contrary, a source says the Patriots have no opening for Schiano and are not likely to create one.
What can be read into the Belichick-Schiano relationship is Belichick has a great deal of respect for Schiano and is likely to continue to lean on him for opinions and recommend him for head coach or coordinator openings in the future.
• The Seahawks are not likely to be pursuing tight end Jimmy Graham, who was franchised by the Saints. The problem is the Seahawks have too many of their own young players—including Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner—to pay to give Graham a record-setting deal.
The Seahawks won the Super Bowl by playing great defense, and general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have no intention of deviating from the formula and allowing their best defensive players to leave. Another team may make a run at Graham, but a number of front-office men indicated they would be concerned about the Saints matching any offer.
• The 49ers and Jim Harbaugh have good reasons to work things out and find common ground. And they very well may. But if they don't, the team already may have Harbaugh's replacement in place for 2015. Indications are 49ers upper management thinks very highly of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.
It is important to note Tomsula was with the 49ers prior to Harbaugh's arrival and in fact served as interim head coach for one game after the firing of Mike Singletary. Tomsula also has prior head coaching experience in NFL Europe.
• Darrelle Revis might not be the only high-profile member of the Bucs caught up in housecleaning by the new front office. Other teams believe guard Davin Joseph also could be had in a trade.
The former Pro Bowler did not perform as well in 2013 after knee surgery but could bounce back in 2014. If healthy and on his game, he can be one of the better guards in the NFL. The downside on Joseph is he is 30 years old and his contract calls for him to make $6 million.
• As the start of free agency approaches, it's starting to look more like Josh McCown will not be returning to Chicago. The market is developing quite nicely for McCown, who is as attractive as any quarterback with an expiring contract.
He could be lured by a situation that offers more opportunity to play and high-end-backup compensation. Among the possibilities include the Bucs, Jets and Vikings.
Now that many of the best free agents have been effectively chained to their teams through tags, the free-agent class is less appealing.
In fact, multiple front-office men said Byrd is the only true unrestricted free agent-to-be with a "blue" grade (NFL teams use the color blue to designate difference-makers, the color red to designate above-average performers, the color purple to designate average players and the color orange to designate below-average players).
"I would say there are about 25 solid starters out there," one pro personnel man said. "Other than maybe Byrd, there isn't anyone who can change the dynamic of a team."
Here is what NFL front-office men are saying about each position group.
There isn't even a pure "red" in the group, according to one high-ranking exec. He grades Michael Vick as a red-minus and said Josh McCown actually played the best of any of the UFAs.
Another designated McCown as a red but considered him a backup because he is 34 years old and does not have a long history of playing at a high level.
This is a good position only to go bargain hunting. "The midlevel running backs are there, guys who can get you out of a game," one front-office man said.
The only reds, according to the men polled, are Darren McFadden, who has a history of not staying healthy, and Maurice Jones-Drew, who is soon to be 29 years old and hasn't had a good season since 2011.
Good luck if your team needs a tight end. "It's a light group," a personnel director said. Now that Dennis Pitta is off the market and Jimmy Graham essentially is off, the only pass-catching tight ends of note are Jermichael Finley, who must be cleared medically, Garrett Graham and Jeff Cumberland.
None of them are expected to get big deals. The best in-line tight end, and the only red among tight ends according to a front-office man, is Brandon Pettigrew of the Lions.
"None of the receivers are true No. 1's," an AFC personnel director said. "But you have three or four guys who could be good No. 2's, and then some No. 3's."
Six offensive linemen were mentioned by various personnel men as solid red players: Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Jared Veldheer, Zane Beadles, Anthony Collins and Rodger Saffold.
There could be a feeding frenzy for the tackles. Rated just below the top tier, as "red-minuses" are centers Brian De La Puente and Evan Dietrich-Smith.
This is one of the stronger positions in terms of depth, but there really aren't any established stars in their prime here. Two players coming off good seasons who could be ascending are defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Linval Joseph. The market for them will be as strong, in the opinion of a few front-office men.
If healthy, Anthony Spencer is rated as a "high-red." Other red players at defensive end are Michael Johnson, Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Justin Tuck. Rated a notch below by one man is Willie Young.
Besides Joseph, the reds at tackle are Arthur Jones, Jason Hatcher, Clinton McDonald, Earl Mitchell, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Omitted from the red category by multiple teams was B.J. Raji, who had a down year after playing at a red level in the past.
This is one of the weakest positions, with only Karlos Dansby and D'Qwell Jackson mentioned in the red category.
There is some depth at this position, but there is some level of risk (character, age, injury, lack of ideal measurables or lack of physicality) associated with each of these players.
Each of these players was mentioned by at least one front-office man as a red: Alterraun Verner (high-red), Aqib Talib (high-red), Vontae Davis, Sam Shields, Antonio Cromartie, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tarell Brown, Charles Tillman, Tracy Porter, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond.
"There are three safeties I really like," a personnel director said of Byrd, Donte Whitner and Antoine Bethea.
Others who were rated red by at least one personnel director were Nate Allen, Mike Mitchell, Darian Stewart, T.J. Ward and Chris Clemons. So it's a solid group of safeties.
• Given the Bucs' tacky new unis, Bucco Bruce has to be rolling over in Davey Jones' locker.
• Jerry Jones showed up at the Oscars. His critics believe he has as good a chance of winning one as a Lombardi Trophy.
• Longer extra-point attempts or shorter games with more time for commercials? I have a hunch I know which way the NFL will go on this one.
• From the looks of Brett Favre, he must be preparing for a role on Duck Dynasty, or a role in WrestleMania XXX. Or perhaps both.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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