Back in the early evening of Saturday, April 25, 2009, the Buffalo Bills raised some eyebrows when, with their first of what had not yet become two second-round draft picks, the Bills selected Oregon DB Jairus Byrd. In just three selections, the Bills had drafted the second player they planned to make a position switch with - Byrd would be moving from corner to safety in Buffalo - and they'd also taken a defensive back when popular (amongst the fan base) players such as Connecticut OT William Beatty and, more prominently, Florida State DE Everette Brown were still on the board.
The knee-jerk reaction of the fan base to the pick? 76% of Buffalo Rumblings voters on draft day voted that they were not satisfied with the selection of Byrd. Read draft day reactions to the Byrd pick. Seriously, some of the immediate reactions were hilarious in retrospect. (Kurupt, in particular, was guilty of a not-so-minor freak-out.)
Jairus Byrd made his third career start at free safety yesterday against the New York Jets. By the time the Bills' 16-13 overtime victory had concluded, Byrd had more than made his presence felt - and he'd also done something no Bills rookie had accomplished since 2001. He's got some weak areas in his game that he needs to clean up, but Byrd deserves a ton of credit for the way he's played.
Let's be clear - Byrd isn't perfect.
Byrd is the word in Buffalo right now, and for good reason - it's been quite a while since the Bills had a presence in their secondary capable of making plays every game. In his three starts, Byrd has recorded three interceptions (the most by a Bills rookie since Nate Clements picked off three passes in 2001), broken up five passes, and made 25 tackles. He's been in position to make even more plays, including getting his hands on a throw in the endzone during their Week 4 loss to Miami.
Yes - it's helped tremendously that Byrd has made his starts against less-than-stellar quarterbacks such as Chad Henne (who was making his first career start), Derek Anderson and Mark Sanchez. But big plays are big plays, and Byrd is making them with crowd-pleasing regularity.
Byrd has struggled tremendously against the run as well. He's seen tons of playing time in each of the Bills' last four games, and in those four contests, the Bills have given up a humiliating 961 rushing yards. That stat is beyond abysmal, and while clearly one man isn't responsible for the entirety of that total, Byrd's poor angles as the last line of defense have been directly responsible for the team's giving up large, gashing runs on the ground.
It's not overly surprising that Byrd has struggled in run support. It's certainly not an unwillingness to play tough in the box; Byrd has made some big hits over the past month. It's that he's playing safety, and thus playing safety run fits in the Bills' gap-oriented run defensive scheme, that he hasn't played consistently since he was in high school. That's an area that Byrd needs to make tremendous strides in if the Bills are going to play competent run defense. Byrd isn't perfect. But if he's making plays, he's worth being on the field, liabilities and all.
The NFL Draft is about finding playmakers.
I mentioned some of the immediate reactions to picking Byrd at the top of the post. That's meant more as a joke than a rub-your-noses-in-it gesture, and I'm certainly not looking to make any claims on the career prospects of Byrd, Beatty or Brown this early in their careers. To do so would be ludicrous. But the Byrd selection does highlight one fundamental truth about the NFL Draft: you need to find playmakers when you make non-offensive line draft picks.
That's why Byrd was so appealing to Buffalo in the second round. His NFL bloodlines and his top-notch college production made him a worthwhile investment, no matter how unpopular the pick was immediately after it was made. He was a playmaker. That was obvious when he was at Oregon, and Buffalo's much-maligned decision makers deserve some credit for understanding that those skills translated to the NFL level.
As mentioned, Byrd has a lot of weak areas in his game to clean up. But the 23-year-old rookie clearly has loads of potential. Paired with 24-year-old Donte Whitner, the Bills appear to have a blindingly bright future at the safety position - provided these two young guys can avoid the bumps and bruises that have hurt them early in their careers.