The Buffalo Bills needed a playmaker. Well, to be fair, they needed more than one playmaker back in late April during the NFL Draft, but for a franchise in the midst of a decade's worth of bad luck, one playmaker is what they got. Buffalo got said playmaker with pick No. 42 overall, when, much to the chagrin of its fan base, the team selected Oregon DB Jairus Byrd.
All these months later, Byrd - who intercepted his ninth pass of the season in the Bills' 16-10 road victory in Kansas City - re-established himself as the NFL's interception leader. His nine picks set a Bills franchise record for most interceptions by rookie in a season. Much more importantly, his presence has helped spark a stagnant playmaking Bills defensive unit, transforming it from one of the league's worst units into the NFL's best play-making secondary.
In 2008, Bills defenders intercepted just 10 passes. Only four teams intercepted fewer passes on the season. A year later, with Byrd at the forefront of the effort, Buffalo has more than doubled its interception output, as the Bills currently lead the NFL with 25 interceptions. Byrd is responsible for 36% of that production.
No, Byrd is not a complete prospect. He's got a lot of growing up to do, particularly when considering that he's still making the transition from college corner to NFL free safety. But few defensive rookies have done as much as he has, stat-wise or for his team, than Byrd has in 2009. In fact, we can only think of three rookie defenders who deserve mention in the same breath as Byrd.
In our view, there are four players with legitimate cases for being the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Those players are, in order of where they were drafted:
Brian Orakpo, DE/OLB, Washington Redskins (Round 1, No. 13 overall)
I, myself, have heard rumors that Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache was not overly thrilled with Washington's selection of Orakpo with the 13th overall pick. I sincerely doubt he feels that way now. In a very stellar rookie season in which he's played multiple positions, Orakpo has tallied 11 sacks and 46 tackles for a very underrated Redskins defense that ranks seventh overall in the league. Orakpo broke out in a Week 14 win over Oakland in which he had six tackles and a whopping four sacks in a 34-13 road win. Orakpo is tied for the team lead in sacks with veteran Andre Carter.
Brian Cushing, OLB, Houston Texans (Round 1, No. 15 overall)
Perhaps the most well-rounded defensive rookie in the league, Cushing has thrived despite the Texans' recent struggles. He's put up 112 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles while starting every game for the Texans this season. Houston's playoff hopes faded quickly after losing four straight, but they still have one of the league's best rookies on its roster.
Clay Matthews III, OLB, Green Bay Packers (Round 1, No. 26 overall)
He's flown under the radar all season, but Matthews - chosen No. 26 overall, 11 spots after his former USC teammate Cushing - has really come on of late. Playing a rush linebacker position in Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, Matthews has put up 40 tackles, 8 sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown on a resurgent Packers defense that has spearheaded its 9-4 record to date. Matthews has half of his sacks in his team's last three games, all victories, as Green Bay makes a serious playoff push. He leads the Packers in sacks, with Cullen Jenkins (4.5) a not-so-close second.
Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo Bills (Round 2, No. 42 overall)
Byrd has 45 tackles, 9 interceptions and 11 defended passes despite only being a part-time starter at the free safety position and dealing with a groin injury since training camp. He's also been at the forefront of a complete turnaround defensively for the Bills in the "big play department," as the Bills as a team have increased their interception output from 10 in 2008 to 25 thus far this season.