No player is more popular in Buffalo right now than Buffalo Bills rookie free safety Jairus Byrd. A second-round pick out of Oregon in this past April's NFL Draft, Byrd - a college cornerback making the switch to free safety in Perry Fewell's Cover 2 defense - has been a revelation for a Bills defense that picked him simply because they had a desperate need for a playmaker defensively. Byrd has started in four of his first seven career games - all in the past four weeks - and he's recorded a whopping five interceptions in a three-game period, including two each in Buffalo's last two games (both wins).
Byrd's interceptions in and of themselves have been impressive, but they've been especially critical for a Bills team that struggles with giving up big yardage defensively, as well as scoring points offensively. In the past two weeks alone - again, games in which Byrd has intercepted four passes - his big plays led directly to 21 points on the board for the Bills. They've only scored 36 points in wins over the Jets and the Panthers. Not only are Byrd's picks big plays, but they're clearly helping the Bills win close games.
There's little question at this point that Byrd's potential is enormous. Right now, with the way he's playing, he's one of the elite safeties in the league. Without getting too excited, and without making overzealous claims about his future or calling him a building block to future successes in Buffalo - because nothing is so clear-cut in the NFL - Byrd's play has been outstanding. As of this posting, Byrd's five picks put him one behind NFL leader Darren Sharper - quite literally, Byrd is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Head on in past the jump for a little perspective on Byrd's hot start.
Where Byrd stands in team annals
The Bills are currently in the midst of celebrating their fiftieth year of being a professional football franchise. In those fifty years, the Bills have had countless numbers of football players walk through the doors at One Bills Drive and strap on Bills colors for regular season football. After just seven games in a Bills uniform, Jairus Byrd ranks No. 47 all-time in Bills history with five career interceptions.
We mentioned last week, after Byrd nabbed his second and third picks on the season, that just one more would give him the most interceptions in team history as a rookie since Jeff Nixon's six-pick inaugural season in 1979. Byrd's now one pick behind him. Here's how Byrd's rookie season stacks up against every other Bills defender's rookie seasons in team history, in terms of interceptions:
Most interceptions by a Buffalo Bills rookie
Archie Matsos - 8 interceptions, 1960
Carl Charon - 7 interceptions, 1962
Butch Byrd - 7 interceptions, 1964
Booker Edgerson - 6 interceptions, 1962
Mike Stratton - 6 interceptions, 1962
Jeff Nixon - 6 interceptions, 1979
Jairus Byrd - 5 interceptions, 2009
The phenomenal part about Byrd's statistical production is the fact that he's putting up similar numbers to men who played pro football in an era in which the forward pass was infinitely more of a gamble than it is today. Those are some pretty impressive players that Byrd is comparing well to there, as well. Again, with the proper caveats - he's still young, nothing is set in stone, he can't possibly keep this big-play pace up - Byrd's hot start is thrown into proper perspective here.
Some modern perspective
I hate doing this, mostly because I hate setting expectations for players when they're not even halfway through their rookie seasons. But Byrd's play has been so surprising, and so productive, that if I didn't make this type of comparison, somebody else would - and, at any rate, it's interesting to discuss. Keep in mind that in no way am I suggesting that Byrd's career path will follow these players', but right now, Byrd again compares favorably.
Right now, if you asked the average NFL fan to name the five best safeties in the league, the five most common names you'll hear are Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Bob Sanders, Darren Sharper and Brian Dawkins. Here's how Byrd's rookie season is stacking up thus far to the rookie seasons of those five players:
Don't read too much into this, because again, the point isn't to try to extrapolate Byrd's career path - it's to point out that he's been truly dominant for a rookie NFL safety. It should obviously be noted that Polamalu, Sanders and Sharper were not starters in their rookie seasons - the closest to that was Polamalu, who appeared in all 16 games as a rookie (but never started), and Sanders appeared in just six games in the first of several injury-plagued seasons. Reed and Dawkins were full-time starters (in Reed's case, he was a starter from the word 'go,' while Dawkins entered the lineup early, but not right away), and their numbers attest to the amount of time they saw on the field.
Where Byrd does not yet measure up to these players is in being a force against all facets of an opposing offense. Reed, Polamalu, Sanders, Sharper, Dawkins - all of these players obviously make big plays in the passing game, but they're also fierce, tough run defenders - run defenders, in fact, that opponents have to game plan around. They're that good against the run. Byrd has definitely shown a willingness to stick his nose in against the run, but he's hardly dominant in that area - Buffalo still has one of the worst run defenses in the league. But he's got the talent to be dominant both ways.
Time will tell if Byrd can continue to mature as an NFL player and keep up his ridiculous pace of game-changing plays. Right now, however, Byrd is most definitely opening eyes around the league as one of the best young safety prospects in the game. He's crossed the line from solid rookie to legitimate talent. It's going to be fun to watch him continue to grow, but he's clearly a big-time talent.