Jairus Byrd Left Untagged by Buffalo Bills: Reactions and Analysis

Jairus Byrd’s time with the Buffalo Bills has likely come to an end after five seasons. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

Jairus Byrd’s career with the Buffalo Bills might be over after five seasons with the team. The Bills announced Monday that they are not using the franchise tag on any of its unrestricted free agents, which the three-time Pro Bowl safety will become next week.

When he was franchise tagged by the Bills last offseason, Byrd ultimately played out 2013 on a one-year, $6.916 million contract, but not before his relationship with the team became tenuous. After the parties failed to strike a long-term contract agreement, Byrd decided to hold out through all of training camp and the preseason, only returning to the team in time for the start of the regular season (though he then went on to miss the team’s first five games with plantar fasciitis).

One would think that last year’s ordeal played a significant part in Buffalo’s decision not to tag him again this offseason.

Had the Bills tagged Byrd, they would have had three options: reach a long-term contract extension with Byrd, trade him to another team, or sign him to another one-year deal, which this time would have been for $8.43 million.

The ideal scenario for the Bills would have been to sign Byrd to a long-term contract before Monday’s deadline. Signing him to a long-term deal is still a possibility, even after he hits the open market when free agency begins, but it seems unlikely at this point.

That evidence, as reported by ESPN anchor Kevin Connors, makes it quite clear that Byrd wants to test the open market.

 “We have negotiated with representation for Jairus Byrd for more than a year, but have yet to reach an agreement on a contract extension,” Doug Whaley said in a press release Monday. “We remain open to getting a deal done with Jairus, but we have chosen not to use the franchise tag on any of our impending unrestricted free agents.”

If Byrd’s decision ultimately comes down to money, the Bills might still be able to land him after he’s tested the waters. That reported average salary of $10 million per year would make him the NFL’s highest-paid safety, according to Spotrac, and is unlikely to be significantly topped by any other team.

That said, Buffalo’s smartest plan at this point would be to simply move on from Byrd. Should they allow the safety to take his time and leave a $10 million per year offer on the table, the Bills will be very limited in their potential to spend money in free agency, only to potentially get hung out to dry. Furthermore, as the Bills continue to build for the future, their focus should be on finding young players who are ready to fully buy into the team’s plan for development, not on an overpaid veteran who would seemingly prefer to play elsewhere.

In my interactions with Bills fans on Twitter, team supporters seemed less upset about potentially losing Byrd than they were about the team “losing him for nothing.” Their concerns are certainly logical: if Byrd wants to play elsewhere, shouldn’t the Bills at least tag him so they can get return value from a trade?

That said, if the Bills believed Byrd would be a valuable trade chip on a franchise tag, they wouldn’t let him go untagged. WGR’s Joe Buscaglia reported Sunday that the Bills “explored all of their options regarding Byrd, including exploring the potential for a trade.”

While tag-and-trade scenarios are hypothesized annually for big-name pending free agents, they come to fruition far less often than it seems most people realize. No player has been tagged-and-traded since the New England Patriots sent quarterback Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009, and no position player has been traded on a franchise tag since the Green Bay Packers shipped defensive tackle Corey Williams to the Cleveland Browns in 2008.

That lack of recent tag-and-trades didn’t preclude the Bills from completing one successfully, but they were unlikely to command more than a mid-round selection for him, considering that the team to trade for Byrd would have no guarantee of having him for more than one year, and have to pay him huge money if they were to sign him long-term.

While it might not be as certain or as fruitful as a trade, the compensatory pick system still might keep the Bills from “losing him for nothing.” The loss of a premier free agent like Byrd would likely net Buffalo a third- or fourth-round compensatory selection — about what they would have expected to receive in a trade — though the compensation could be nullified if the Bills sign another premier free agent, or more significant free agents than they lose.

Nonetheless, stalled negotiations forced the Bills to accept that by franchising Byrd, the most likely outcome might well have been a repeat of last offseason, potentially with a holdout extending into the season this time around.

For a young team who is still building its way up to being a potential contender, and whose focus therefore needs to be on building for the future, the last thing it needs is an unhappy veteran player on a one-year loan who could take on a significant cap hit while causing a distraction off the field.

How Do The Bills Replace Byrd?

Now that the franchise-tag deadline has passed, the Bills shouldn’t waste any time looking in the rear-view mirror. In order to truly move on from Byrd, they must quickly figure out their plan to replace him, with free agency looming just one week away.

As BBD assistant editor Joe Marino tweeted Sunday, the answer might already be on the roster.

Second-year safety Duke Williams could be the answer for filling the void opened by Jairus Byrd’s departure. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

Duke Williams didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, but the Bills didn’t draft him in the fourth round—and Jonathan Meeks in the fifth round—for no reason. As both players enter their second season, they should each get a crack at earning the starting safety spot vacated by Byrd.

Though Aaron Williams seemed to find a natural home at strong safety last season, Buffalo’s best bet with its current roster is likely to move Williams to free safety, as he is the most adequate choice to handle center-field coverage responsibilities. Between Duke Williams, Meeks and Da’Norris Searcy, the Bills could have solid competition between its returning players for the starting spot alongside Aaron Williams.

That said, it should be expected that the Bills will bring in at least one more option to the competition through free agency and/or the draft.

One free-agent fit for Buffalo could be Louis Delmas, who played his first five NFL seasons in Detroit for new Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Other free-agent options could include Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Clemons and Antoine Bethea.

Bringing in another young safety on Day 2 or 3 of the draft would also be a smart move by the Bills. Potential options could include Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward, Florida State’s Terrence Brooks, USC’s Dion Bailey and Alabama’s Vinnie Sunseri.

What should not be expected, however, is that the Bills will make the same investment in a safety to replace Byrd that they would have made in their 2013 franchise player.

The Bills could spend big money in an effort to sign T.J. Ward away from the Cleveland Browns, but bringing in a cheaper option to compete for a job is far more likely.

Another option that is likely to be floated around in some mock drafts, but would be a mistake, is that the Bills could draft Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the No. 9 overall pick.

If the Bills are going to draft any player from Alabama’s defense in Round 1, it should be linebacker C.J. Mosley, but they might also be able to land a premier talent from Texas A&M in either offensive tackle Jake Matthews or wide receiver Mike Evans, either of whom could make a huge immediate impact at areas of need. The Bills still have bigger needs than safety even with Byrd’s departure, and Clinton-Dix is not going to be the best player available at a top-10 slot.

Losing Byrd is likely to hurt the Bills defense in 2014, as finding an immediate replacement for a second-team All-Pro simply doesn’t come easily. For the long-term, however, Byrd’s departure might well be in Buffalo’s best interest, as the team should keep its focus on developing its young talent, keeping veterans who truly want to be part of the Bills’ building effort and continuing to find value in personnel who can make the team better through free agency and the draft.

Tags: 2014 NFL free agency, 2014 Offseason, Buffalo Bills, Duke Williams, Franchise Tag, Free Agency, Jairus Byrd, Safeties, Tag-and-Trade

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