Saints must learn from Jairus Byrd miss, but can't sit out free agency

Jairus Byrd's impending release is the latest example of just how badly the New Orleans Saints have been missing the mark in free agency over the past three years.

Byrd is the most expensive defensive free agent the Saints have ever signed (a deal that wound up being worth $27.9 million over three years). But it only amounted to three interceptions in three years, thanks in large part to a major knee injury suffered in 2014.

At least Byrd lasted longer than recent free-agent busts like Brandon Browner, C.J. Spiller and James Laurinaitis.

It has been an ugly trend. And I would go so far as to pinpoint that string of free-agent flops as the biggest reason why New Orleans has suffered through three straight 7-9 seasons.

However, I don’t think it means the Saints should sit out free agency this year -- especially since they will have more than $30 million in salary-cap space (Byrd’s release will save them either $3.2 million or $7.8 million, depending on whether they designate it as a post-June 1 release).

Of course it would be great if New Orleans could afford to sit back and avoid overpaying a pass-rusher or cornerback or middle linebacker. But let’s face it -- the Saints are still in the same bind they were in when they signed Byrd three years ago, Browner two years ago and Laurinaitis last year.

They still desperately need more impact players on a struggling defense, despite showing slight improvement in 2016. And they can’t rely on the draft alone if they want to contend while 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level.

The Saints can’t spend recklessly -- and they can’t keep missing so badly. But the lesson learned from Byrd and so many others is more like, “spend better” than just, “spend less.”

The dream scenario is a mini-version of what the New York Giants just did last year, when free-agent newcomers Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison immediately revamped their defense and turned them into playoff contenders.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis suggested during the Senior Bowl that the Saints plan to be “aggressive” in free agency (which should come as no surprise, since the Saints carved out so much salary-cap space with the unique way they structured Brees’ contract extension last year).

And the Saints have proven they aren’t afraid to target premier free agents, since they aggressively tried to land cornerback Josh Norman at $15 million per year last April before he chose the Washington Redskins instead.

However, Saints coach Sean Payton discussed the dangers of free-agent spending in a recent interview with SiriusXM Radio:

"You recognize there's risks in this free-agency process,” Payton said. “There's always that euphoria with teams in that first week. And then you always go back a year and say, ‘Hey, here they were. Would you think the club would do it again? This is what the guy was paid.’ And more often than not, that answer would be no. And so, you have to be diligent and you have to look closely at who it is you're interested in."

So whom might the Saints be interested in?

Unfortunately, their biggest need is for an edge-rushing defensive end, and many of the top edge-rushers were taken off the market this week (Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram, Chandler Jones and Mario Addison).

New England Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard could be a good fit in that second tier. Or if the Saints want to really swing for the fences, they might consider spending bigger at another position with someone like Patriots inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower or a top cornerback like the Houston Texans’ A.J. Bouye, the Buffalo BillsStephon Gilmore or the Los Angeles Rams’ Trumaine Johnson.

As for Byrd’s future, it’s possible he could bounce back with a change of scheme and scenery at age 30.

Byrd’s days as a three-time Pro Bowl free safety who forced 33 turnovers in his first five years with the Bills seem to be long gone now. But most of his struggles were because of the knee injury that lingered over two seasons from 2014-15. He finally started to play his best football in New Orleans down the stretch last season -- highlighted by a two-interception performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17.

Byrd definitely was not worth the $7.8 million in salary and bonuses he was scheduled to receive in 2017. But I did think there was a chance he could stay in New Orleans if he agreed to a major pay cut.

He could still be a solid starting free safety with some upside. And unlike the Saints, Byrd’s next team should get him at a bargain rate.