The New Orleans Saints defense just got some serious Super Bowl swagger.
With the signing of safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year contract, first reported by the team's Twitter account, New Orleans—known for its offense more than its defense under head coach Sean Payton—grabs not only the best free agent of 2014, but also a serious building block for what is becoming a legit defense.
In an NFC with defensive juggernauts like the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, the Saints will rarely be mentioned in the same breath. Yet, in total defense (yards allowed) the Saints were fourth in the NFL in 2013—ahead of San Francisco. In terms of points, New Orleans was also fourth behind those three revered NFC contenders.
In Byrd, the Saints add one of the best safeties in the NFL. That he is only 27 is a major bonus. Heck, let's call it a coup for a defense that has struggled to shore up a secondary in recent years and has attempted to get younger in the process.
Byrd, the eighth-ranked safety in the entire league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), pairs with second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro, who came in at 27th, by their estimation. The move also allows the Saints to move on easily from former first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins, who—as ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported—is now a Philadelphia Eagle.
In a fantastic breakdown of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defensive scheme earlier in the year, NFC South lead writer Knox Bardeen described part of the safety's role in the defense:
Sixteen different players have notched 20 or more plays rushing the passer on passing downs, according to Pro Football Focus(subscription required), including two defensive backs (Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro), seven linebackers and seven defensive linemen. The Saints have 18 defensive players that have affected an opposing quarterback with either a sack, hit or hurry.
Byrd, although not known as a devastating pass-rusher in his time in Buffalo, collected a sack and three hurries last season—in only 13 pass-rushing snaps. That level of productivity (as measured by PFF), would've ranked first on the Saints last season.
But let's be honest. Byrd wasn't signed just on the basis of his theoretical ability to rush the passer like Ryan might want. No, far much more valuable is his ability as a single high safety. In the zone-blitzing schemes that Ryan loves to run, he'll get a lot of opportunities there.
In this excerpt from his book, Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland lays out the 3-3-5 defense that, although the Saints are known as a 3-4 team, New Orleans ran a lot last season. With three safeties and two cornerbacks on the field, two safeties essentially play the seams (or blitz from their position down in the box) while one free safety roams the deep middle third of the field like the second coming of Ken Griffey Jr.
Byrd's former defensive coordinator (and current Cleveland Browns head coach) Mike Pettine grew up under Rob's brother, Rex Ryan, in New York with the Jets and in Baltimore with the Ravens. It was largely Byrd and Byrd's interceptions that helped Pettine make his mark and land a head-coaching gig.
Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei examined Byrd's value before free agency started:
"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."
Because of his elite talent and experience in schemes similar to Ryan's, Byrd will not only know where to line up, but how to make a game-changing play when he gets there.
Now, as the Saints move on from offensive stalwarts like Darren Sproles, Lance Moore and Zach Strief, it is their defense that starts to look like the straw that will stir the drink in the Big Easy.
Byrd joins not only fellow safety Vaccaro, but also star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan (a free agent in 2015), stud linebacker Junior Galette, young defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins, as well as top cornerback Keenan Lewis.
In terms of young defensive talent, that's not a group any quarterback would want to mess with—especially not with Ryan coordinating the bunch, and especially not with Byrd ball-hawking across the top of the field.