2014 NFL Offseason: Why Jairus Byrd Is the Key Acquisition so Far

Danny SchwartzContributor IMay 26, 2014

Former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd (left) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd (left) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.Associated Press

Jairus Byrd is the key acquisition of the NFL offseason thus far, and the extent of his impact on the back end of the New Orleans Saints' defense will shuffle the power balance of the NFC.

Byrd, a former second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills out of Oregon in 2009, was a cornerback in college. The Bills transitioned him to safety in an effort to make up for his average top speed, and his play blossomed immediately.

Byrd notched nine interceptions and 11 passes deflected as a rookie and was selected to the Pro Bowl in his first season, subsequently earning Pro Bowl honors in 2012 and 2013 as well.

His young career has been tarnished by injury, however, as his rookie season was cut short by a trip to the injury reserve. After the Bills slapped him with a franchise tag last offseason, Byrd struggled with a foot injury that limited him to just 11 games played.

The Bills faced a crossroads for their franchise as contract negotiations heated up in 2014, with Byrd looking for a long-term, big-money extension.

It was widely assumed that the safety's high price tag would limit many teams' interest, and Byrd seemed close to re-signing with Buffalo.

In a hugely surprising move, however, the New Orleans Saints swooped in and offered a six-year, $56 million contract with $28 million guaranteed, the duration and financials of which are relatively unheard of for a safety in today's NFL. Byrd accepted the deal.

Despite concerns with the possible return of Byrd's plantar fasciitis injury, the Saints noticed a leaguewide trend toward the passing game. The team made this move with a nod toward stopping the heralded passing games of teams like the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.

What makes the Byrd signing so important, however, is the extent to which his arrival will affect New Orleans' defense in relation to its vaunted offense.

The Saints rely on the veteran leadership, big arm and pinpoint accuracy of Drew Brees at quarterback, with weapons like tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston, running back Pierre Thomas and new rookie receiver Brandin Cooks at Brees' disposal. This offense is consistently one of the best in the league, and it allows the Saints to compete for postseason appearances year after year.

It is on defense, however, where the ceiling of the Saints' success lies.

For years, the team relied on studs like defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, with center field safety Darren Sharper patrolling deep. At about the same time as the bounty scandal, many of the Saints' defensive stalwarts began to slow down and show their age. The team's defense was a sieve that stuck them at the bottom of the NFC South.

Now, New Orleans' defense is under the watchful eye of Rob Ryan, who preaches an attacking style led by defensive end Cameron Jordan with man coverage on the back end. How well the team can limit opponents' offenses and give Drew Brees more shots at the end zone is often the key to victory for New Orleans.

Which brings us back to Byrd.

If Byrd can come into the Saints' secondary and pair with second-year starter Kenny Vaccaro to form the best safety duo outside of Seattle, New Orleans will be able to limit the vast offensive arsenals of their opponents and make up for the occasional hiccup from Brees.

In a conference where Seattle and San Francisco reign on the backs of their stout defenses, it is paramount that the Saints defend as well as possible. Byrd's ranginess, eye for the quarterback, quick closing speed and ball skills all will aid this mission.

Byrd's signing comes with some questions, however.

Can he stay healthy enough to play 16 games this season? What about at the end of his contract, when he's 33 years old? Will the big money thrown his way take away from the depth at other positions? Will it limit the Saints' ability to bring back Graham on a long-term deal?

These questions, and the quality of Byrd's play, factor into how elite New Orleans' defense is. In turn, how capable the Saints' defense is will certainly increase the team's chances of success in the brutal NFC.

Byrd's production could mean the difference between a Super Bowl title and a first-round exit or, even worse, missing the postseason all together.