Two days after the Buffalo Bills announced, on March 3, that they would not use the franchise tag on free agent safety Jairus Byrd, they handed fourth-year defensive back Aaron Williams a four-year, $26 million contract extension with more than $14.6 million guaranteed. Today, Byrd is a member of the New Orleans Saints, and Williams is now arguably the best and most important player in Buffalo's evolving secondary.
Williams, a 2011 second-round draft pick out of Texas, spent most of his first two seasons as an oft-injured, struggling cornerback. (He missed a combined 12 games in 2011 and 2012, and isn't out of the woods yet from an injury perspective, having missed the final two games of the 2013 season, as well. That's something to monitor.) His transition to safety, which has undoubtedly revitalized his young career, nonetheless did not materialize as quickly as it was supposed to, as he spent three more games playing cornerback early last season when starters Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin were injured.
Something clicked for Williams in 2013, even before he finally settled in at safety full-time: he was a more dynamic, faster, more confident player than we'd ever seen him be at the NFL level. Williams finished his third pro season with 82 tackles, four interceptions, 11 defended passes and a forced fumble; at 24 years old and finally playing the position he should have been playing all along, it's fair to assume that he's only scratching the surface of his potential.
Williams is not the biggest-name player on Buffalo's defense by any stretch; he probably isn't even the biggest-name or most important player in the secondary. But he proved last season that he is capable of being an above-average cover safety in the NFL, with the physicality to support the run, the range to play centerfield, and the fluidity to cover one on one. He also has ball skills to make plenty of big plays in a more prominent downhill role at the back of a good pass-rushing defense. Jim Schwartz knows better than anyone the value of a player with Williams' skill set, and it's worth pointing out again that Williams is only now settling into a groove at the pro level. The sky is the limit with this guy.
That said, the Bills are assuming some risk letting Byrd walk and handing a key role to a 24-year-old with less than a season's worth of good football in three, and who has had trouble staying healthy. On the field, Williams has a chance to emerge as one of the better young safeties in the league - but off it, the Bills could be in a heap of trouble at safety, where Williams' starting counterpart remains undecided.
This post continues a series in which we'll discuss the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. We'll update this list each time a new entry in the series posts.