Jairus Byrd contract muddles Buffalo Bills safety picture

Rick Stewart

The Bills have enviable depth and versatility at safety - and they shouldn't let it affect negotiations with star defender Jairus Byrd.

This off-season, the Buffalo Bills made a lot of changes at a safety position many considered a relative team strength over the past several years. Gone is veteran George Wilson, released in March, and in are a former second-round cornerback and two mid-round prospects that might have gone much earlier in a "typical" year, but were pushed down due to incredible rookie class depth at the position.

The positional makeover has increased what was already solid depth, made the position much more athletic and youthful, and has increased the positional versatility of the group across the board. Yet behind Jairus Byrd - now the elder statesmen of the group at just 26 years old - there is more potential and intrigue than hard answers. That fact alone makes Byrd's lingering contract issue the major story line for the team heading into the summer, and it's one that could become quite frustrating if a long-term deal isn't reached.

Jairus Byrd

  • Age: 26 (27 in October)
  • Contract: Has not yet signed his franchise tag, which is worth $6.9 million for one season.

One of the best safeties in the NFL, Byrd makes up for his one true weakness - a lack of elite straight-line speed - with superb instincts and excellent quickness. He has great range and almost always takes proper angles, both against the run and when the ball is in the air. He's not the biggest safety by any stretch, but he's a proficient tackler that makes some surprisingly big hits. Byrd has elite ball skills, as well. The guy's got it all, is in the prime of his career, and is worth every penny of the big-money extension that he's seeking and deserves. Byrd is a potential perennial Pro Bowl and All-Pro player, and he needs to be in Buffalo for a long time.

Aaron Williams

  • Age: 23
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $853,105 in base salary in 2013.

In April of 2011, many media-type draft experts considered Williams a first-round talent as a safety. Buffalo drafted him in the second round as a cornerback, and he struggled mightily in coverage and with injuries in his first two seasons. Now he's getting a look at safety, a position which could mask his lack of ideal turn-and-run ability more than if he were still playing corner full-time. You'll also notice that Williams is still just 23 years old; in fact, he's younger than some of his rookie teammates, including quarterback EJ Manuel. Along with another rookie on this list, Williams gives new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine a promising athlete with a fresh start and some much-needed versatility. If all goes well - and that includes staying off the injury list for the first time in his career - Williams could be in line for a significant role, if he can hold off some significant competition.

Da'Norris Searcy

  • Age: 24 (25 in November)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.

A 2011 fourth-round pick, Searcy is a bit of an enigma at this stage of the off-season. He was the recipient of a larger role in 2012 and had solid moments, but that was with an outgoing coaching staff; where he stands with the new one remains to be seen. Searcy has more versatility than he's given credit for - he played some cornerback in college, too - but athletically, he does profile as more of an in-the-box type than some of his newer position mates. That said, he's a young athlete with a good amount of field experience, and that will help him out a lot as he vies for playing time at a very crowded position.

Duke Williams

  • Age: 22 (23 in October)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Terms not yet available.

There were some analysts pre-draft that believed the 5'11", 203-pound Williams could play cornerback at the NFL level. He may not have a true position in Buffalo, where a new-look hybrid defense will likely ask him to play both safety and corner. With the Bills looking to use a ton of nickel and dime looks in 2013, there's a very good chance that Williams will see a large chunk of playing time as a rookie - and, quite frankly, the team needs his combination of athleticism and hard-hitting aggression on the field as soon as possible.

Jonathan Meeks

  • Age: 23 (24 in November)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Terms not yet available.

Meeks was not the subject of a lot of pre-draft attention, but it's not difficult to see why the Bills liked him: he's a big, athletic prospect with two years of starting experience (during which he showed improvement) in a major conference. He'll start his Bills career on special teams, and while there are some coverage concerns that will need to be addressed, he's the type of physical presence with sideline-to-sideline range that the Bills' new defense requires.

Mana Silva

  • Age: 24 (25 in August)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.

Added after the start of the 2012 regular season, Silva saw just two (yes, one-two) snaps on defense last season, but did become an integral part of the team's special teams coverage units over the latter portions of the season. An excellent athlete, Silva has the physical skills to play deep safety, which makes him an interesting complement to the previous two names on the list.

Jordan Dangerfield

  • Age: 22 (23 in December)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.

An undrafted free agent out of Towson, Dangerfield is highly athletic (41.5-inch vertical leap and great short-area explosiveness), but is looking at long odds to make the roster thanks to the depth of the position. He is, however, a strong candidate for practice squad consideration.

Outlook

Byrd is the only sure bet at this position, and it is imperative that the team get him under contract long-term. It will be beyond frustrating if July 15 (the league's deadline for signing franchise-tagged players to long-term deals) comes and goes without a new contract in place for Buffalo's best defender. Get it done, Mr. Brandon, Mr. Nix and Mr. Overdorf.

Williams and Williams - who, if they ever line up together will obviously need a clever moniker of some sort - are the unique players in this positional group, as they're the two most likely candidates to start at safety, but move down and cover slot receivers and tight ends thanks to their cornerback skills. That versatility is a big plus working for a coach like Pettine; it'll be interesting to see how he uses them, and whether or not he can use both simultaneously.

Silva and Dangerfield are probably looking up at Searcy and Meeks on the proverbial pecking order, but they do have one thing going for them: that duo is slightly better athletically than Searcy and Meeks, who are more in-the-box types. Silva, in particular, is a name to keep in the back of your mind; the front office liked him in 2011 and acquired him just last season, and he's got some solid special teams tape working in his favor.

This is a deep and talented group, and it would not at all be surprising to see at least five of these players on the final 53-man roster. But as the unit has gotten better, it has also grown more unproven, which has only increased Byrd's importance.

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