Game-changer: Byrd is Saints' new 'shark'

METAIRIE, La. -- Jairus Byrd isn’t just the proverbial “last guy on the field” after practice.

The New Orleans Saints safety is the last guy on the field, on his knees, catching balls one-handed from the JUGS machine.

That’s how you get to become one of the NFL’s top ball hawks. That, and a quick first step and uncanny ball skills that Byrd’s new coaches and teammates have raved about since he signed a six-year, $54 million contract in free agency in March.

“I feel I have to be able to catch the ball just as well as a receiver does. When the ball’s in the air, it’s just as much mine as theirs,” Byrd said of his post-practice methods. “That’s the approach. You never know when it’s going to come. I have to have as good hands as they do to catch balls.”

Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, ranks as the 20th-best defensive player in the NFL according to this year’s ESPN #NFLRank poll of 90 NFL analysts.

Byrd, 27, has 22 career interceptions -- the second most in the NFL in that span behind Asante Samuel, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound Byrd also has forced 11 turnovers in his career.

That’s the skill set the Saints coveted most when they aggressively went out and signed Byrd within hours of the start of free agency.

The Saints defense was outstanding last year, surging from 32nd in total defense in 2012 to fourth in 2013 under new coordinator Rob Ryan. But the one area where they came up short was takeaways. It seems almost mathematically impossible, but the Saints forced only four turnovers in the last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs.

Enter Byrd, who becomes the Saints' highest-ranked defensive player on the #NFLRank list.

The hope is that Byrd will continue to provide those turnovers -- and that his thievery will spread throughout the defense, as turnovers are known to do.

"Once you get that first one, you just have this energy, almost like a shark," Byrd said. "You feel it. You go for the ball and it gets contagious. Everybody around the whole secondary is looking to get that turnover.”

Byrd’s start with the Saints was delayed when he underwent a summer back surgery to relieve a nagging disk issue, sidelining him for all of OTAs and minicamp.

But once he returned to full-contact drills a week ago, he quickly started living up to his reputation. He had two interceptions during his second full practice -- including a very impressive and deceptive pick against quarterback Drew Brees in 7-on-7 drills.

"Oh man, it was a ridiculous play," Brees said. "No. 1, I didn't feel like he would really reach it, but he did. To actually come down with it was a whole [different] story. Usually that ball just gets tipped and goes out of the back of the end zone, but it was an impressive play."

Saints coach Sean Payton and Ryan have lavished similar praise on Byrd, crediting his anticipation and instincts as well as his athletic skills.

“Typically with a safety like that, it starts with the first step and anticipation. You can have great speed and ball skills, but if your anticipation is a step slow, you find yourself a step away from a play,” Payton said.

Added Ryan: “There comes a time and point where every turnover is made where a guy has to just go make it. And he’s been great all through his career. I mean, he just has unique ball skills. And so did his father [longtime former NFL standout Gill Byrd].”