Saints' Jairus Byrd Will Win Defensive Player of the Year, and Here's Why

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Saints' Jairus Byrd Will Win Defensive Player of the Year, and Here's Why
Steven Senne/Associated Press

In the eyes of NFL players, New Orleans Saints safety and former Buffalo Bill Jairus Byrd wasn’t good enough to be one of the top 100 players of 2014. This is a snub by all accounts, and pundits such as NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling and The Times-Picayune’s Rachel Whittaker agree that Byrd should have made an appearance.

Luckily, Byrd’s ranking should skyrocket next year, with the 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in hand.

Wait, over J.J. Watt? Over Earl Thomas? Over Luke Kuechly, the award’s most recent winner?

Absolutely. The players above—along with many, many others not listed—will have a legitimate shot at snagging the award for themselves. However, when looking at the past Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year winners, there is a pattern of criteria that has been satisfied. Byrd is lining up perfectly with those requirements, more so than any player on the Top 100 list. And after signing a much-ballyhooed six year, $56 million contract with New Orleans, Byrd is in a great position to showcase his talents to fans outside of Buffalo.

Let’s break down the requirements for Defensive Player of the Year and how Byrd satisfies each one.

The player has to be on a top-10 defensive team

Since 1996, only one player—Michael Strahan—has won the award on a defense that wasn’t ranked in the top 10 for yards allowed, according to Pro Football Reference's statistics. Much like the MVP award, the DPotY award should go to the player that didn’t just put up impressive individual statistics, but raised the level of the defense around him.

Byrd and the Saints shouldn’t have to worry too much about their defense. After being a sieve in 2012, Rob Ryan became the team’s defense coordinator and engineered a quick turnaround—the Saints ranked fourth in both points and yards allowed in 2013.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Byrd will boost a defense that already thrived under Rob Ryan

New Orleans should be even better defensively this season. With the continued development of Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro—along with the massive upgrade of Malcolm Jenkins to Byrd—the Saints will be renowned for more than just their Drew Brees-led offense. A top-five finish is expected, which would satisfy the requirement.

A top-ranked defensive finish this year would be an impressive feat for teams like the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both teams have All-Pro players at key positions in Robert Quinn, Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, but they finished 15th and 17th, respectively, in yards allowed last season, per NFL.com's statistics.

If that happens again next season, the cases for Quinn, David and McCoy suffer, and Byrd will look like the better candidate in the process.

The more successful the player’s team is, the better

18 of the past 21 winners of the award were on playoff teams, including the last seven. Both individual statistics and team defense statistics can make compelling cases, but helping a team making the playoffs is valued more than thriving on a doormat.

After all, a big part of Kuechly winning the award was his role in the success of a revitalized Carolina Panthers team.

NFL Defensive Player of the Year winners, since 2005
Year Player (Position) Defense, Yards Allowed Postseason Finish
2013 Luke Kuechly (LB) 2nd NFC Divisional Round
2012 J.J. Watt (DE) 10th AFC Divisional Round
2011 Terrell Suggs (LB) 3rd AFC Championship
2010 Troy Polomalu (S) 2nd Lost Super Bowl
2009 Charles Woodson (CB) 2nd NFC Wildcard Round
2008 James Harrison (LB) 1st Won Super Bowl
2007 Bob Sanders (S) 3rd AFC Divisional Round
2006 Jason Taylor (DE) 4th Did not qualify
2005 Brian Urlacher (LB) 2nd NFC Divisional Round

Pro Football Reference

The Saints have had no problems with success with Sean Payton and Brees at the helm. If Jimmy Graham cheers up and the offense continues to be explosive, New Orleans will make the playoffs yet again, even in the hypercompetitive NFC. The now fearsome defense with Byrd further strengthens their case for the postseason.

This requirement should come as no surprise, and it was the single most damaging criteria for Watt’s chance at a repeat in 2013, as the Texans collapsed and finished with a 2-14 record. Although Houston should improve upon that record with less bad luck and better personnel, the playoffs remain unlikely, which makes even a superhuman like Watt not a surefire choice for the award.

The player has to be widely considered the team’s best defender

The power of the vote split severely weakened the campaigns of fellow Seahawks Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman last year. Thomas came in third place with 7.5 votes, while Sherman finished fifth with four votes. If there was no debate that Thomas or Sherman made a larger impact than the other, then one of the Seahawks would have finished in second place.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Sherman and Thomas are two legitimate candidates on the same team, which will reduce their chances of winning

With the spotlight shining brightly on the defending Super Bowl champions, more votes should slide their way if they keep up their high level of play. But that won’t matter during awards season if factions are split regarding who is the better player.

That is why a player must be widely considered his team’s best defensive player in order to win DPotY. The Saints have much more defensive talent than people realize—the criminally underrated Keenan Lewis among them—but none of that talent is as valuable as Byrd. Pro Football Focus agrees, citing Byrd as New Orleans’ only elite defender.

More often than not, the DPotY is a first-time winner

Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers are always reliable picks for league MVP, while DPotY is anything but a static award.

Only six players in NFL history have won the award more than once—none since 2003—and only Lawrence Taylor has won the award in back-to-back years. As great as Kuechly is, he is not a young Lawrence Taylor. A repeat for him will be incredibly hard and unlikely.

The variety of award winners in recent years is likely due to the sheer depth of excellent defenders in the league today. Watt is one of the rare players with a good shot at winning his second, but the newfound stinginess towards rewarding a player twice—along with the potential struggles of Watt’s team—makes a player winning it for his first time a safer bet than a player winning it for his second time.

That is where Byrd comes in.

The three-time All-Pro safety has always been a great player at a thin position, yet Buffalo’s lack of success in recent years has made his case for a big award a difficult one. In a new uniform with a significantly better team, Byrd should be recognized more for his excellence and voters will take notice.

The player has to perform at an outstanding level

This is the most important and the most obvious criteria. Don’t worry, Byrd addresses this requirement just as effectively as the others, and that alone could make him a top DPotY candidate.

There are few safeties that can do what Byrd can on the field. As a single-high free safety that can play centerfield or plug up holes versus the run, only Earl Thomas can contend with Byrd in terms of impact at the position.

Even then, some think Byrd is the clear-cut best safety, including Bleacher Report’s Andrew Garda, who called Byrd the position’s most dominant player, noting his excellent range and instincts in pass coverage.

And Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson wrote that Byrd is one of the few players that can play the deep middle and make a Seattle-esque defense outside of the Emerald City possible, which is vital in a copycat league.

Pro Football Focus, Sam Monson
Pro Football Focus' ratings show that Byrd is a dominant coverage safety

With the stats shown above, most notably Byrd’s 35.0 passer rating allowed in coverage, it’s obvious that Byrd could thrive in any defense. However, Rob Ryan’s aggressive, blitz-happy 3-4 scheme is the perfect fit for his attentive and free-roaming style of coverage. Bleacher Report’s Aaron Nagler agrees in the video below, saying that the addition of Byrd gives the Saints much more flexibility.

Byrd’s production should be just as good—if not better—with the Saints because there are players at each level of the Saints defense that Ryan can use to blitz or rush the passer effectively, including Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Kenny Vaccaro.

The pressure of these rising studs should force plenty of errant throws from opposing quarterbacks, allowing Byrd to do what he does best: pick off passes and force incompletions.

Robert Mays, Grantland
Byrd makes a diving interception versus the Miami Dolphins

Robert Mays, Grantland
Byrd snatches the ball away against the Arizona Cardinals

These interceptions should come in bunches for Byrd in New Orleans, especially when the opposing offense is desperately trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of Brees and company. It’s the perfect marriage of safety and team.

Which All-Pro defender has the best chance at winning their first DPotY award?

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Byrd may not be the best defensive player in the league—the majority of general managers would take Watt over anyone else—but he projects to be one of the most impactful defenders at a position that is as vital as it is lacking in depth. Barring injury, Byrd will fit the strict criteria of the past award winners, and he will take the New Orleans defense to unforeseen heights.

Byrd was snubbed from this year’s NFL Top 100 list, and he’ll make that decision look crazier and crazier with each week he plays for the Saints. Pleading his case for Defensive Player of the Year seems over the top in July, but with all of the questions the other top candidates have regarding their teams, their teammates or themselves, Byrd is not a bold choice—he’s a dominant coverage safety in a passing league. The players and the voters should start taking notice.

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