ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 24: Jairus Byrd #31 of the Buffalo Bills steps in to intercept a pass intended for Eric Decker #87 of the Denver Broncos at Ralph Wilson Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. Byrd ran the interception 37 yards for a touchdown. Buffalo won 40-14. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Let's play a little game this afternoon, Buffalo Bills fans, to while away the remainder of day No. 121 in our countdown to the 2012 regular season opener.
Here are the rules to our game: you're going to pick one player on the team right now that you are the most bullish on. The catch? This player can't be a free agent signing (i.e. no "Mario Williams, DUH" responses), nor can he be a rookie. The player you choose must have been with the Bills during the 2011 season.
Why are we curious to see which returning Bills player fans are most excited about? It's simple, really: we spend so much time between January and May talking about where and how the team needs to change - and it's obviously changed quite a lot up here in Western New York this spring - that we sometimes lose focus on the guys already on the team, getting distracted by the "MARIO SHINY!" (or "CORNELL GREEN SHINY?") of it all.
My vote isn't a secret if you look at the photo attached to this article; I'll get into why I'm bullish about Jairus Byrd briefly after the jump. Who are you bullish on, Bills fans?
I'll admit that picking Byrd is cheating our one rule a little bit, as much of the rationale for my being bullish on the fourth-year safety has to do with the expectation that the Bills will do a complete 180 in the pass-rushing department. By now, you know Byrd's story - he was a "sensation" as a rookie, when he paced the league with nine interceptions, then so-so in 2010. Last year he seemed to put a lot of the elements of a well-rounded safety together, and emerged as, well, a well-rounded safety.
This year - a contract year for the 2009 second-round pick - has the makings of a season in which Byrd emerges as a player recognized by what I'll call "the casual and superficial NFL observer" as an elite player. Byrd is already a good player, and despite his lower interception totals in the last two years, he's still making plays, forcing six fumbles, recovering three more, recording two sacks and even scoring two touchdowns. With the expectation that a better pass rush will lead to opposing quarterbacks spraying footballs all over the field as erratically as they did in Byrd's rookie season, he may get the opportunity to put up some impressive statistics this season. Good players are recognized by the hardcore; statistical producers are recognized universally. Byrd is on the verge of universal recognition, in my eyes.