When the Buffalo Bills selected Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Bills fans were largely apoplectic at the audacity of the franchise. Already deep at cornerback, fans were shocked and outraged that the team had not provided further reinforcements to its left tackle and linebacker positions.
One position switch, nine interceptions and one Pro Bowl berth later, very few Bills fans are complaining about Byrd. The NFL at large noticed Byrd's production last season, and it's going to make incoming rookie safety Earl Thomas (Texas) a ton of money.
Byrd did not impress during pre-draft workouts a year ago. The 5'10", 200-pound Byrd was viewed as a zone-only corner after running a 4.67-second 40-yard dash while dealing with a nagging injury. An underrated athlete, Byrd's lack of ideal straight-line speed was a concern to some teams, but Buffalo (and other teams) still valued him highly thanks to his most prized talent: ball skills. Byrd has big, soft hands, and Bills scouts believed that the 17 interceptions Byrd accumulated in his three seasons at Oregon would translate to the NFL. One season in, he's more than halfway home to his college total.
Thomas, a redshirt sophomore, is already drawing comparisons to Byrd. Ball skills are back in vogue in NFL circles, which is why Byrd was a second-round pick a year ago, and why the higher-upside Thomas is a virtual lock for the Top 15 this year. With similar measurables (5'10", 208, 4.49), a similar background (Thomas played some cornerback at UT) and those aforementioned ball skills (10 interceptions in two years, including eight in 2009), the comparisons are apt.
Byrd's rookie success, along with the longevity of cover-first safeties such as Darren Sharper (to whom Thomas is also compared), are going to make Thomas a very rich dude.