What would be next for Bills after Byrd?

It's not over yet, but we're getting there.

The Jairus Byrd era in Buffalo took another step toward ending Monday when the Bills decided not to assign the three-time Pro Bowl safety with the franchise tag.

General manager Doug Whaley said the team continues to negotiate with Byrd, who can begin talking to other teams Saturday. The earliest he can sign a free-agent deal elsewhere is Tuesday.

Byrd is likely hoping that, after being kept in Buffalo on the franchise tag last season, he can find a more lucrative deal with another team. The Bills are likely hoping that Byrd can't find that sort of deal on the open market and reconsiders their offer.

"As they say in that movie, there's always a chance," Whaley said Monday when asked about the possibility of Byrd and the Bills agreeing to a new deal.

But at this point, the odds are against that happening. As of Saturday there were 13 NFL teams with $20 million or more in cap space, including the Bills. That doesn't mean teams will throw financial discipline out the window to add Byrd, but it increases the chances that another team offers Byrd more than the Bills are willing to.

While Byrd's market will come more into focus this weekend, the Bills may soon need to execute their backup plan at safety.

Without Byrd, Aaron Williams tops the Bills' depth chart at the position. The 2011 second-round pick struggled for two seasons as a cornerback before settling into Mike Pettine's defense as a safety last season. Williams' four interceptions matched Byrd's total, but he will now have to adjust to another new defensive scheme under Jim Schwartz.

Continued improvement from Williams would help ease the blow from losing Byrd. Still, the Bills need two starting safeties, and they may not have another on their roster.

"I have complete confidence, not only in everybody in this organization that has given us the resources and the backing but also our scouting staff," Whaley said, "that if we are unfortunate enough to lose Jairus Byrd, we found him [and] we'll be confident that we can get a replacement, if we don't already have one on campus."

Other than Williams, the Bills have four safeties under contract. Da'Norris Searcy started seven games last season but is best as a role player. If the Bills need to turn to him as a bridge to a younger player, Searcy would slide in at strong safety while Williams would drop back into a center-field role, like Byrd. It wouldn't be ideal, but they could get by.

There's also a trio of younger players: Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks and Jajuan Harley. Of the three, only Williams has experience playing on defense in the NFL, and he was limited to 2.8 percent of snaps as a rookie last season. Williams is a fourth-round pick, but he would still need to make a major jump to replace Byrd next season.

If the Bills can't find a replacement on campus, where would they look next? Here are our initial thoughts:

Free agency: Even outside of Byrd, the free-agent class at safety is strong. Cleveland's T.J. Ward, Miami's Chris Clemons, New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins and San Francisco's Donte Whitner are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Ward is the best of the group but may command a deal that rivals Byrd's. Ultimately, the Bills may want to develop their homegrown replacement instead of opening their wallets on the free-agent market.

The draft: The draft provides fewer solid options. Safety is considered to have weaker depth than most positions this May, with Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor at the top of the board. The Bills wouldn't consider either at ninth overall and may have to hope they're still on the board early in the second round.

Trade market: Dipping into the trade market would be the least likely scenario but can't be counted out. Their best bet would be to find a younger player who is undervalued in a new defensive scheme and try him in a different system.