BBD Assistant Editor: Joe Marino
After Aaron Williams signed a four-year contract extension Wednesday, every arrow is pointing in the direction of Jairus Byrd not being retained by the Buffalo Bills. With one safety locked up through 2018, the focus shifts to who will fill the shoes of the three-time Pro Bowler, who the team decided to leave untagged earlier this week.
Newly hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prefers balanced safeties who can both cover and contribute in run support. In Aaron Williams, the Bills have one starting safety who can do both. Alongside him, the answer to finding Byrd’s replacement might already be on the roster.
In the 2013 NFL draft, the Bills used their fourth- and fifth-round selections on safeties, presumably with an expectation that Jairus Byrd would not be on the roster beyond the 2013 season.
In my opinion, last year’s fourth-round pick out of Nevada is the most likely choice to start in Byrd’s place.
Williams had a terrific senior season for the Wolfpack in 2012 as he accumulated 106 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, one interception, nine passes defended and three forced fumbles. He followed that up with a strong showing at the 2013 Senior Bowl, then steamrolled his Senior Bowl performance into a good workout at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he turned in a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, did 13 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press and leaped 37.5” in the vertical jump and 10’6” in the broad jump.
Williams is best-known for his athletic ability and hard-hitting plays in run support, but he can also cover and potentially play slot corner. Ultimately, off-field issues from early in Williams’ career at Nevada hurt his draft stock, which contributed to his availability for the Bills at the No. 105 overall selection.
Instead of investing big dollars or high draft picks in a safety, Williams is the most economic option with the most upside to replace Byrd.
The player who actually started in Byrd’s place during the first five games of the 2013 season, as Byrd recovered from plantar fasciitas, was Da’Norris Searcy. In the most extensive action he has seen in his career, Searcy performed well. Overall, Searcy had a productive season as a fill-in starter and third safety, contributing 71 tackles, three tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, nine passes defended and an interception.
Like Williams, Searcy is a former fourth-round selection, drafted 100th overall in 2011.
In the last year of his rookie contract, Searcy should be poised to prove that he is a starter in the NFL and turn in a productive season. At worst, Searcy is a viable third safety with starting potential.
The dark horse in the Bills’ starting safety battle is 2013 fifth-round selection Jonathan Meeks.
Meeks, who did not receive an invitation to the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, was not nearly the prospect Williams was, but he had seven interceptions and 17 passes defended for his career at Clemson. Meeks led the Bills in solo tackles for the 2013 preseason, but his regular season was limited to eight games as he suffered a high ankle sprain that sent him to injured reserve with a return designation.
It is more likely that Meeks will compete to be the Bills’ fourth safety in 2014.
Free Agent Options
There are some appealing safeties available in the free agent market.
The most obvious choice would be recently-released Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas. Delmas has spent his entire NFL career playing safety for new Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz and Delmas, both castoffs from the Lions this offseason, could reunite in Buffalo.
Although Delmas has played in at least 15 games in three of his five NFL seasons, he has dealt with a plethora of injuries that are reason to be concerned about his durability.
Former Miami Dolphins safety Chris Clemons could present an attractive option. Clemons was ranked by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the ninth-best cover safety in the NFL in 2013. While Clemons isn’t as solid against the run, he has quietly put together a solid five-year career.
Other free agents who could draw interest from the Bills are Malcolm Jenkins and Antoine Bethea. Jenkins has been a bit of a disappointment since being selected No. 14 overall by the New Orleans Saints in 2009, but he is a physically-gifted player looking for the opportunity to showcase the reason the Saints took him in the first half of the first round.
Antoine Bethea, now 30 years old, has been a two time Pro Bowler for the Indianapolis Colts. While he might not be the most attractive option considering his age, Bethea has plenty of playoff experience and high-level play under his belt. Depending on the market for Bethea, he could be a short-term, stopgap option if the Bills do not feel their younger safeties are ready to start.
Potential Draft Picks
If the Bills are not convinced their solution at safety is on the roster or available in free agency, they could look to the upcoming draft to shore up the position.
Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is regarded as the top safety in the draft and one of the more balanced safeties available. I do not think Clinton-Dix would represent good value with the ninth pick in the draft, and ideally the Bills would trade back if they identify him as their first-round target. However, if the Bills want to be certain that they get the draft’s top safety, they might have to stand pat and utilize the ninth selection on him.
Clinton-Dix has good size and athleticism for his position. He has a nose for the football and is always around plays. His willingness to fly to the football, strong tackling skills and good tackling angles make Clinton-Dix a very sound safety in run support. You can also see him frequently blitzing from the secondary and making plays near the line of scrimmage.
Clinton-Dix does a good job of keeping things in front of him in pass defense and is aggressive pursuing the ball. Alabama plays single-high safety defenses often, which leaves Clinton-Dix with a lot of ground to cover. Some of his instincts in pass defense can improve, but overall, he can be trusted as a center-fielder in the secondary.
Should the Bills wait until Day 2 to draft a safety, one of the best options who could be available is Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. Ward is a similar player to Clinton-Dix in that both are rangy safeties who can play single-high and contribute against the run.
Washington State’s safety Deone Bucannon is another potential option. For his career, Bucannon has 15 interceptions, 23 passes defended and seven forced fumbles. He also had 384 career tackles and is known for his big hits. He had a strong showing at last month’s Scouting Combine, and has terrific size for the position at 6’1” and 211 pounds.
Florida State safety Terrence Brooks was a standout on the back end of the Seminoles’ national championship defense and is another balanced safety option in this years draft. Brooks, who also had a strong combine performance as he ran his forty yard dash in 4.42 seconds and leaped 38” in the vertical jump, would be more of a third-round option if the Bills don’t draft a safety in the first two rounds.
If the Bills draft a safety early, that would be a strong indication they lack confidence in Duke Williams to step in and start.
All in all, Jairus Byrd is one of the premier safeties in the NFL and replacing his ability is no small task. That said, there are viable options currently on the roster who represent good competition in an effort to solidify the position.
Duke Williams is the key to this situation. If the Bills feel confident in his ability, it would free them up to invest free agent dollars and draft picks in other positions of need. If not, it certainly appears that there are plenty of options available via free agency and the draft.
Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, 2014 NFL free agency, 2014 NFL Offseason, Antoine Bethea, Buffalo Bills, Chris Clemons, Da'Norris Searcy, Deone Bucannon, Duke Williams, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jairus Byrd, Jimmie Ward, Jonathan Meeks, Louis Delmas, Malcolm Jenkins, Safeties, Terrence Brooks