All-22: The Jairus Byrd Question

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On the surface, Jairus Byrd appears to be a near-perfect fit.

That’s why he’s the free agent Birds 24/7 readers have asked about the most in recent weeks. Byrd played his college ball at Oregon, and for two seasons while he was there, Chip Kelly was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator. At 27, he is a three-time Pro Bowler and appears set to hit the open market.

At this point, we don’t even need to discuss the need for the Eagles to upgrade at safety. It’s been a position of weakness for five straight years, and the personnel whiffs have led to struggles on the back end of the Birds’ defense.

While Howie Roseman has dropped hint after hint this offseason that the Eagles won’t be pursuing big-name free agents, I decided to take a closer look at Byrd anyway.

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Safety has become such a valuable position because of the diverse skill set the position now requires. Teams are looking for athletes who can match up with slot receivers and tight ends, play center field and come up to help against the run.

But the Bills really played to Byrd’s biggest strength, which was patrolling the deep middle of the field and making plays on the football.

According to Pro Football Focus, Byrd played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage just 12.1 percent of the time. That ranked 60th out of the 63 safeties who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps last season. In other words, he was almost exclusively the free safety, rarely inching up near the line of scrimmage to play in the box.

But there’s a reason the Bills used him the way he did – because he’s fantastic at reading the quarterback, getting to the ball and creating turnovers. Since 2009, Byrd has 22 interceptions, the most among all NFL safeties (and he’s also forced 11 fumbles during that span, second-most among safeties).

Here’s an example from last season’s game against the Steelers. The Bills are in man coverage with Byrd set up as the single high safety.

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Ben Roethlisberger wants to take a shot deep to Markus Wheaton, who is running a fade at the top of the screen.

But Roethlisberger does a poor job of looking off the safety, and Byrd reads his eyes right away, making his way towards Wheaton.

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The ball is underthrown, and Byrd is in perfect position to make the interception.

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Again, this is by far Byrd’s biggest strength. He is a ball-hawk who can control the deep part of the field in between the numbers and make opposing quarterbacks pay for their mistakes when going downfield.

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Byrd played cornerback at a high level in college, earning All-Pac 10 honors in his sophomore and junior seasons (he left school a year early). But he wasn’t asked to match up with tight ends and slot receivers one-on-one a great deal in Buffalo’s scheme.

Per PFF, Byrd lined up against a slot receiver just 19 times last season and 22 times in 2012.

While he wasn’t used much in man coverage in the four games I watched, the Eagles should have a pretty good idea of his skill set in that aspect because of his background at Oregon.

Going back to that Steelers game, here’s a play where Byrd got matched up with tight end Heath Miller.

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Miller runs an over route to the other side of the field, and Byrd has no trouble sticking with him.

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This is just one example. I watched Bills games against the Saints and Falcons, and I didn’t see Byrd matched up against Jimmy Graham or Tony Gonzalez one-on-one. So it’s not like he was a tight end stopper. But he could be good in man coverage situations if a different scheme asked him to perform those tasks more often.

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Byrd does not have great straight-line speed. Coming out of Oregon, he ran in the 4.6s at his Pro Day (a groin injury prevented him from running at the combine). But Byrd tested well in drills that measured burst and agility.

Those traits show up on tape. On in-breaking routes in front of him, Byrd is good at attacking the ball. He’s not a big hitter, but he is a very good tackler. In 2012, PFF had him down as the most efficient tackler in the league among safeties. And in 2013, he missed just four tackles all season. Byrd takes good angles, wraps up and is good in the open field.

At the same time, he’s not going to track down a lot of wide receivers and running backs if they get behind him.

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The bottom line here? The Eagles should absolutely have interest in Byrd. He’s in another class from the safeties they’ve had on the field during the last five seasons.

But there are question marks. And the biggest one is his price tag. Byrd played last year under the franchise tag, and a report out of Buffalo indicated he’s looking to be the highest-paid safety in the NFL. Last year’s top free-agent safety, Dashon Goldson, signed a five-year, $41.25M deal with the Bucs (with $22M guaranteed).

Earl Thomas could get an extension this offseason from the Seahawks, and that would likely set the high point of the safety market.

Along with the straight-line speed mentioned above, Byrd is 5-10, 207. In other words, he’s not going to jump off the page from a measurables perspective. And he missed five games last season with plantar fasciitis in both of his feet.

The knocks are relatively minor. We’re still talking about one of the better safeties in the game and a player that would provide an immediate upgrade at a need position.

Byrd has made it no secret that he’s looking to get paid. The Eagles will likely see how the market plays out and decide if they’re willing to match his price.

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