The All-22 All-Stars: Jairus Byrd, an Unsigned Star
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
Update: At 9:20 p.m. EST, the Bills announced that Byrd has signed his one-year franchise tender with the team.
Among the few words we do hear Bill Belichick say, one phrase seems most prevalent. No NFL Films clip of the Patriots feels complete without Belichick, pencil behind his ear, kneeling in front of his team’s bench, repeating the mantra over and over: “Do your job. Do your job.” It’s a concept cast throughout the NFL — a player’s worth is based on how well he fits into the whole.
Jairus Byrd knows this better than most, because he’s had to relearn it so many times. In Byrd’s four seasons in Buffalo, the Bills have shuffled through three defensive coordinators. His position coach has remained the same during that time, easing those transitions, though Byrd was forced to acclimate to a new scheme and earn the trust of a new coordinator in all but one of his seasons. “Each coach is different, what they allow you to do,” Byrd says. “[Every time] you have to prove yourself to the staff.”
Byrd knows there’s a limit to the demands of each system. “No one can interpret your job the same way you do as a player,” Byrd says. “They ask you to do your job, but everyone does it a different way.” Players aren’t cyborgs. Even when making the correct play in any given situation, every player accomplishes his goal in his own way. “It’s something that everyone just inherently has,” Byrd says. “They interpret things a certain way. They tailor their game to fit how they do things, obviously within the confines of what they’re being asked. You have to be disciplined, but you do things in a style, put your signature with your strengths.”
It’s an observation particularly fitting for Byrd right now. The Bills safety remains the only player yet to sign his franchise tender. He remains a holdout from the team’s preseason practices. Byrd declined to comment on his contract situation and the events of this offseason, but if he does continue his holdout into the season, Buffalo will be forced to face reality without a player whose personal signature is inimitable.
As a rookie, Byrd intercepted nine passes. That figure is bolstered by a handful of tipped balls and fluke plays, but it’s still a remarkable total for a first-year safety — especially one who started just 11 games. In one five-game stretch, Byrd picked off eight passes, including three straight games with two interceptions. Combined, it was enough to earn him a trip to the Pro Bowl. Like many defensive backs, his trajectory as a player wasn’t linear. Variance in scheme and the typical growing pains led to a dip in his second year before a significant improvement in his third. But last season, Byrd looked like an even more polished version of the player the league had seen in 2009. The interceptions returned, but more importantly, they came without the lapses in judgment and subpar run defense that marred his younger days.
In July, it was reported that Byrd’s ideal contract was somewhere in the range of what the Chargers’ Eric Weddle and Dashon Goldson, the recently signed Buccaneers safety, had received — five years, $40 million, about $20 million guaranteed. The suspicions for the holdup — whether it’s Byrd signing his tender or Buffalo electing not to offer him a long-term extension before the July deadline — are twofold. Byrd is likely hesitant to sign the tender without a clause that would prohibit the Bills from franchising him again next season. The Bills reportedly don’t view safety as a position worth such a significant investment. They may not, but considering the market, it’s clear that other teams around the league do. In the league’s pass-happy climate, an elite cover safety like Byrd is more valuable than ever, and if he is allowed to walk, he won’t be homeless for long.
It was evident pretty early on that Byrd had a knack for making plays with the ball in his hands — but not too early. Gill Byrd, like some other former NFL players, was hesitant about letting his son play football. The ex-Chargers cornerback, who went to two Pro Bowls, ruled that his son wouldn’t play until he was 13. By 11, Jairus had worn dad down.
Despite his pedigree, Byrd shied away from the secondary in high school. His role at Clayton High School in St. Louis was mostly as a quarterback, where he was Missouri’s offensive player of the year. But when he was recruited by Oregon, Byrd knew he’d be moving to the other side of the ball, and by the end of his redshirt freshman season, he was a starting cornerback for the Ducks.
Throughout his college career, Byrd showed a knack for being around the ball. In three seasons he had 17 interceptions. The Bills took him in the second round, despite his 4.6 40-yard dash at Oregon’s pro day. When he arrived at his first training camp, the Bills staff slid him to free safety. “He had marginal foot speed for the cornerback position,” says George Catavolos, the Bills’ former secondary coach. “He had good technique, we liked the way he played the ball, we needed a free safety. We just felt that was his best position.”
From the start, Catavolos says, everyone saw Byrd as a playmaker. “I was in awe of his eye-hand coordination,” Catavolos says. “I wish I could say I helped him with that. But that’s God-given.” Catavolos has 29 years of NFL experience as a secondary coach, and he says that when it comes to making plays on the ball, only former Lions and Broncos cornerback Dre’ Bly compares to Byrd.
The interception total from Byrd’s rookie year was undeniably impressive, but he wasn’t a complete player yet. “At safety, you have to see the big picture,” Byrd says. “At corner, it’s a narrow picture. Now, you have to see the whole field, what the offense is trying to do, how they’re going to attack.” In his second year, as the Bills shifted to a 3-4 defense under George Edwards, Byrd’s interception numbers plummeted. He picked off only one pass, in the Bills’ final game of the season. They finished 4-12. Part of that drop can be attributed to a change in responsibility: Whereas the previous year, Perry Fewell’s defense had played more quarters coverage, keeping Byrd closer to the line of scrimmage and the action, Edwards’s scheme sequestered him to the deep parts of the field. But it wasn’t just positioning that slowed him in his sophomore season. Catavolos says that often in that second year, the nod of a quarterback was enough to coax Byrd into biting, leaving him out of position and struggling to recover.
The last two seasons, Byrd has been improving the little things, regaining his ball-hawk skills while refining the little things. Last year, Byrd was second in the league among safeties in interceptions, but he also went the entire season without surrendering a touchdown. Interceptions are a dangerous way to gauge the play of defensive backs because of how indistinguishable they are from opportunity. In some ways, they’re the RBIs of football. A cornerback who shares a secondary with an elite cover man is likely to see more targets and, as a result, have more opportunities to intercept passes. Tim Jennings led the league in interceptions last season with nine, but he was also the eighth-most targeted cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. What makes Byrd’s five interceptions remarkable is that he was targeted just 21 times, according to both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. In terms of frequency, PFF’s numbers show that Byrd had the most snaps per target of any safety in the league, and he still managed five interceptions.
Safeties who manage high interception totals — like Ed Reed — are often slapped with the “gambler” label, but Catavolos says he has never considered Byrd someone who falls into that category. From Year 1 to Year 4, the biggest change he saw in Byrd was the ability to retain information about opposing offenses. “[His rookie year] we’d meet and then break for lunch, and by the time we got back, he hadn’t retained as much information as I thought he had,” Catavolos says.
Byrd now knows how analytical a player must be to thrive. “As you get better in understanding the game more, it’s film work before the game and it’s studying during the game,” Byrd says. “Preparing for the games, you get to understand tendencies of the quarterback, how they throw the ball, their basic mechanics. During the game, you can say, ‘OK, they’ve attacked us here a lot.’ That’s the next step. That’s when you really understand the game to another level.” He’s talking about the play above, from the Bills’ Week 6 game against the Cardinals. Before the ball is even released, Byrd has taken 10 steps toward the tight end, a choice he trusts based on both where his help resides within the defense and Kevin Kolb’s habits in this formation and situation. In overtime of the same game, he made a nearly identical play deep within Cardinals territory. The Bills kicked a game-winning field goal two plays later.
Understanding scheme and tendencies is all well and good, but at a certain point, what sets Byrd apart is his ability to make plays on the ball in instances when others wouldn’t. The above play is from Buffalo’s Week 11 game against Miami; it’s Byrd’s favorite of the season. From the time the ball leaves Ryan Tannehill’s hand, Byrd dashes from just outside the hash mark all the way to the sideline. It’s possible in part because of how Byrd reads Tannehill’s eyes, but also because of this:
Like Catavolos said, preparation and coaching matter only so much.
This offseason, Bills coach Chan Gailey was fired after another last-place finish in the AFC East. With him went defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, replaced by former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. One of the suggested reasons for new general manager Doug Whaley’s reluctance to sign Byrd to a long-term deal earlier this summer was that he wanted to see how the All-Pro safety fits into Pettine’s scheme. Earlier this offseason, Pettine said of his ideal free safety, “If you can have a safety that has corner skills, that to me is ideal. I would sacrifice the ability to be a ‘box player,’ a thicker guy and a thumper type: I’d sacrifice that for the cover skills any day.” Pettine was referring to Aaron Williams, a converted cornerback and Byrd’s likely replacement, but if he really does want a safety with elite cover skills, he’d probably be open to having the best cover safety in football.
What the front office thinks is a different issue. Since the July multi-year deadline was put in place with the 2006 CBA, no player has ever missed a regular season game with a franchise tag-related holdout, so Week 1 isn’t likely to begin without Byrd having signed his tender. Or, ideally, a one-year deal with a clause that would prevent the Bills from franchising him again. The question will be what happens when the season ends. Byrd wants to be paid like the top safeties in the league today. When asked to put him in context among his peers, Catavolos doesn’t hesitate. “Ed Reed was the best in the business,” Catavolos says. “A very smart, heady guy. That guy was a complete player. You can mention [Byrd] in that same breath.”