Losing Byrd is blow, but Bills can benefit

Just like that ... it's over.

The New Orleans Saints signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract Tuesday night, locking up the three-time Pro Bowl safety hours after the free-agent signing period opened.

The writing for Byrd's departure had been on the wall since the Buffalo Bills decided not to franchise him last week. Given the opportunity for Byrd to hit the open market, few expected that he would spurn offers elsewhere and return to Buffalo.

It's a move that stings the Bills -- they had sufficient cap space to absorb an $8.4 million franchise tender, without needing to make a long-term commitment to Byrd -- but ultimately the pain will fade. Losing Byrd deals a blow to the Bills' secondary but also shows a measure of financial discipline from a rebuilding team that needed improvement across its roster.

Byrd's contract is worth $9 million per season, making him the highest-paid safety in the NFL on a per-year basis. His $28 million guaranteed is the second-most among all safeties, falling shy of only the $34 million guaranteed that the Kansas City Chiefs gave Eric Berry as a rookie in 2010.

The NFL is becoming an increasingly pass-heavy league, but that's a lot of money to give to any player who's not a quarterback. The Bills already have one top-paid player on their defense -- Mario Williams' $16 million per season is the most among defensive ends -- and two giant contracts would start to weigh down the Bills financially.

Still, make no mistake about it: The Bills have a significant hole to fill in their defensive backfield. They inked safety Aaron Williams to a four-year extension last week that put him among the top 10 highest-paid safeties in the NFL. At 23, Williams is far from an elite player and the Bills are banking that he will grow into that role.

Williams and Byrd were a pairing last season. It's not a one-for-one swap; the Bills will need to find another player to plug the gap. The solution probably isn't on the roster, unless the Bills want to gamble on Duke Williams, a fourth-round pick who played little on defense last season, or they try to make Da'Norris Searcy more than a role player -- which he isn't.

How the Bills go about replacing Byrd remains to be seen. His departure undoubtedly makes safety more of a priority in free agency, the draft, or both.

Without the burden of giving a massive contract to Byrd, general manager Doug Whaley now has money to spend. Instead of pouring funds into one asset, the former stockbroker has a chance to diversify his portfolio, adding more affordable players that fill more needs across the roster.

Losing Byrd might be a tough pill to swallow, but if Whaley is able to engineer a more balanced, complete roster because of it, the Bills won't have any reason to look back.