On March 11, free-agent safety Jairus Byrd agreed to a six-year, $54 million dollar contract with the New Orleans Saints. While that seems like an eternity ago with all the activity of free agency, the Saints’ acquisition of Byrd still remains the single most important move of the NFL offseason so far.
Byrd spent five outstanding seasons with the Buffalo Bills, going to the Pro Bowl in three of them. His career statistics of 356 tackles, three sacks, 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles stand up with any safety in the league over the past five years.
He isn’t the best safety in the NFL in coverage, nor in run defense, but Byrd does a little bit of everything very well and makes game-changing plays. Byrd is athletic and physical, making him a good tackler and hard hitter, as evidenced by the number of fumbles he’s forced.
That versatility plus superior instincts make Byrd an ideal Cover 1 “center field” type of safety. Byrd’s total of 22 interceptions is second in the NFL since 2009. During his rookie campaign, Byrd became the first player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to record three consecutive multi-interception games.
Current Bills head coach and former Saints offensive coordinator Doug Marrone told The Advocate what New Orleans can expect from Byrd when he takes the field.
He’s a proven playmaker in this league, and he’ll be very, very successful. When you watch him play … he hustles his butt off, and he puts himself in position to make those (takeaway) plays, and that’s a credit to him.
Byrd fits in perfectly with the Saints. New Orleans can now pair him with outstanding young safety Kenny Vaccaro, a versatile player in his own right. The Saints also still have Rafael Bush, who is as good of a No. 3 safety as you’ll find anywhere and will see plenty of action in New Orleans’ three-safety packages, plus a great cornerback in Keenan Lewis.
Put all those players with a defensive coordinator like Rob Ryan who will find the best way to creatively use their strengths, and it becomes a dream scenario for the Saints.
Byrd met with Ryan before signing with New Orleans and was impressed with what the coach had to say, per John DeShazier of NewOrleansSaints.com
He just said, basically, he looks at everybody and he’s going to do what everyone does well. He takes input from the players… I’ve heard so many great things about him throughout the league – players, older veterans who aren’t playing any more, other coaches. I’ve gotten texts and calls from them saying how much I would really enjoy playing for him.
Byrd’s contract is the second-largest in Saints history and largest ever for a safety, but it reflects the growing importance of the position around the NFL. The versatility of Byrd and Vaccaro will help Ryan to effectively scheme against multiple types of offensive weapons.
We normally think of the Saints as an offensive juggernaut, and they will continue to be potent as long as Drew Brees is around. But the Saints defense ranked fourth in total yards allowed and No. 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings a year ago, both huge improvements after a disastrous 2012.
New Orleans generated a great pass rush with Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, ranking fourth in sacks. That combination of pressure on the quarterback plus a great secondary could make for a dominant defense. Just take a look at what the Seattle Seahawks were able to do during their Super Bowl run.
The one thing the Saints defense didn’t excel at was takeaways, as it only managed 19 the entire season. Byrd’s ability to generate turnovers will fix that.
Was Byrd the single best player available on the free-agent market? Probably not. But he will have the most impact by going to a team that was already a contender with a chance to push it over the top.
New Orleans was not far off last year, going 11-5 and winning a Wild Card Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. A late charge in the divisional round put a scare into the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, as New Orleans was down just eight points with the ball in the final minute. That was without Vaccaro, who suffered a broken ankle Week 16.
The Carolina Panthers look vulnerable in the NFC South with their wide receiver situation. If the Saints can get a deal done with Jimmy Graham and add a center, they can improve upon their 11-5 record and possibly grab ultra-important home-field advantage at the Superdome.
The window in New Orleans is open. Byrd is the type of impact playmaker who can help the Saints win another championship.