I'm ranking the top 20 New Orleans Saints players leading up to training camp. It's based on their current value -- meaning both past accomplishments and potential are taken into account.
At No. 4 is safety Jairus Byrd:
Last year's rank: 4th
Analysis: I'm basically giving Byrd a do-over here.
Although his debut with the Saints last year was certainly disappointing -- mostly due to injuries -- Byrd's proven track record shouldn't be ignored. He went to three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, and his 22 interceptions during that span ranked second in the NFL.
I still think it's possible Byrd can live up to the blockbuster six-year, $54 million contract he signed last year now that he's healthy and the Saints are making efforts to clean up the secondary around him (simplified playbook, new assistant coach Dennis Allen, new cornerback Brandon Browner). The Saints have good talent in that unit. They just need to cut down on the assignment errors, blown coverages and missed tackles that plagued them in 2014.
The chemistry should be better with everyone having a full summer to get acquainted. Last year, Byrd missed all of organized team activities and minicamp while recovering from back surgery. Then he missed the final 12 regular-season games with a knee injury. He's been fully cleared since March.
Byrd, 28, is supposed to be a ball-hawking turnover machine roaming the back end of the Saints' defense. We saw his potential in Week 1 last season when he stripped a fumble away from Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones (the 12th forced fumble of Byrd's career).
However, for the rest of the four games Byrd played, he looked as out of place as the rest of that disjointed secondary. He missed his own share of tackles, many of them coming when running backs such as Dallas' DeMarco Murray broke loose into the open field. That's not what the Saints brought Byrd in to do, though.
ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson's take: "I think their imagination for the safety position was mimicking Seattle, that they want [Kenny] Vaccaro to be [Kam] Chancellor and they want Byrd to be the true Earl Thomas, Ed Reed center fielder, deep middle guy. And I think he's perfect for that. He's not super-physical. But he's got a great knack for playing the ball in the air, baiting quarterbacks. Plays faster than he times. At his best, I very, very much liked him. I thought he was a very good signing for the Saints. And he got hurt. So he's easy to forget about. But he's a Pro Bowl-type guy that makes a lot of problems go away. You know, your corner blows a coverage, and he makes something happen behind him."