Teams around the NFL spent big Tuesday on safeties who might be able to make the kind of impact that Thomas has made with the reigning Super Bowl champs. None more so than the New Orleans Saints, who agreed to a six-year deal with former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
The deal is worth $9 million per year – a hefty price, indeed. But Byrd was rated by several media outlets as the No. 1 free agent available in the NFL, regardless of position.
Byrd has made three Pro Bowls in his five seasons with the Bills, racking up 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.
ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down the move from both perspectives:
Triplett: So how much of a game-changer did the Saints get in Byrd?
Rodak: There’s potential for him to be one, Mike. Byrd’s absence early last season hurt the Bills. Their secondary stumbled its way through a Week 3 loss to the New York Jets, which wound up being one of Geno Smith’s best games of the season. He tossed two long touchdown passes, exposing a weakness at safety when Byrd was injured. Overall, opposing quarterbacks had a 46.0 QBR and a 7.19 yards per attempt when Byrd was out. When he came back, that dropped to a 30.1 QBR and a 6.18 yards per attempt. Had he played the full season, Byrd statistically projected to have seven interceptions, which would have been the second-best mark of his career.
Mike, how the heck did the Saints manage to fit Byrd under their cap? I think that’s what surprised Bills fans the most -- that a team with about $2 million in cap space at the start of this week managed to nab one of the top free agents on the market.
Triplett: Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? Especially when it comes to salary-cap management.
I was a little surprised that the Saints aimed THAT high. But I fully expected them to make one or two aggressive moves, like when they signed cornerback Keenan Lewis last year under similar cap constraints. The Saints are bona fide Super Bowl contenders as long as quarterback Drew Brees remains in his prime. And they’ve shown that they’re willing to keep pushing salary-cap costs into future years as long as they’re in this window (Byrd's deal only counts $3.5 million against the cap in 2014).
Of course, it has meant releasing a ton of beloved veterans this offseason, when the Saints feel like their values no longer match up with the price tag. But the Saints clearly figured that Byrd could make a bigger impact going forward.
So I’ll ask you the flip side, Mike. Why do you think the Bills let Byrd get away? Any reason to worry that he won’t continue at this pace for another four or five years?
Rodak: I think that the Bills had reached a point with Byrd where they felt like there wasn’t going to be much of a future. They had been negotiating with him for over a year and once they decided not to franchise him, the writing was on the wall for his departure. Why didn’t they franchise him? I think that’s a decision that can be debated for years. General manager Doug Whaley said that they wanted "more amicable" negotiations, but it never seemed like talks changed course in the final week before free agency. Ideally, I think the Bills would have liked to franchise and trade him, but Whaley admitted that was a difficult proposition.
As for Byrd’s future, there are two concerns: his speed and his feet. ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian gave Byrd a B-minus for his free-agent tracker, calling him a “speed-deficient safety.” As Byrd gets into the later years of his Saints deal, that could become a greater concern. There’s also plantar fasciitis, a chronic foot condition that kept Byrd out of the first five games last season. He’s said that’s something he dealt with even before last season, and it’s something to monitor going forward.
Mike, do you think the pairing of Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro is now the best safety tandem in the NFL?
Triplett: Maybe outside of Seattle, anyway. Vaccaro showed a lot of promise as a rookie last year, and I think this frees the Saints up even more to use him as an attacker all over the field while trusting Byrd to help from the back end. Throw in Lewis, whom I thought deserved to go to the Pro Bowl as a No. 1 cornerback last year, and it’s quite the secondary the Saints are putting together. Not a bad complement to the Saints’ offense, obviously.
Hopefully it winds up as a win-win, with the Bills spending wisely on their future. I don’t mind saying that having covered Doug Marrone here in New Orleans, he’s one of my absolute favorites in the league.