I'm going to bring this up again, if only because I find it to be the epitome of why snap judgment from a fan base can be ill-advised: when the Buffalo Bills selected Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, 76% of the Buffalo Rumblings community (vehemently) disapproved of the selection.
To everyone's credit, things calmed down considerably three days later; by that time, we'd gotten our heart rates under control, the alcohol out of the blood stream, and done a little research regarding Byrd. We'd also been informed that he'd be moving from cornerback to free safety. From that point, we excitedly watched Byrd intercept nine passes in his rookie season, earn a Pro Bowl selection, and nearly win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Entering his second pro season, expectations are high for Byrd. Most of us understand that Byrd, while excellent as a rookie, was far from perfect. Still, on a team that needs as many playmakers as it can get, Byrd might be the most proven commodity the team employs in that department. The man I consider directly responsible for two of Buffalo's six wins a year ago should, for now, be considered the lynchpin of one of the league's best defensive backfields.
We knew - once we'd calmed down, at least - that Byrd possessed excellent ball skills even before he set foot on an NFL field. Playing three years at cornerback in what used to be the Pac-10, Byrd finished his Ducks career with 17 interceptions and a whopping 55 pass break-ups. I don't think anyone here expected Byrd to nab more than half of his career interception total in one NFL season, however. (He had 11 pass break-ups, as well.)
Byrd's production from Weeks 5 through 10 a year ago - a stretch during which the Bills played five games - was historic. In those five games, Byrd intercepted a whopping eight passes, including three straight games with two picks each, and at least one in all five games. Sadly, the Bills still only managed a 2-3 record in those games, but even amidst that disappointment, we knew we had witnessed something special from a guy nobody really expected anything from.
He did it all while not being 100% healthy, too. Byrd missed most of the team's spring OTAs and the start of training camp after undergoing sports hernia surgery to correct an ailment that was partially responsible for his poor pre-draft workout numbers. That injury never fully healed, and Byrd missed a fair amount of snaps because of it. He then saw his stellar rookie season cut short when he landed on IR thanks to a torn labrum in his hip, which also required surgery. That's an injury that is still somewhat lingering, as it limited his participation through spring OTAs this year as he learns a new defense.
There are still improvements that Byrd needs to make to his overall game. First and foremost, he needs to be a better run defender; free safeties aren't asked to be run-support players, but Byrd needs to refine his tackling technique and be a better presence in his run fits. He's not the only Bills safety that needs to improve against the run - the whole defense could stand to improve in that department - but run support is the clear glaring weakness to Byrd's game.
He's got the coverage thing down. Setting aside his big plays, Byrd allowed very few receptions in his area of the field a year ago, which goes hand in hand with a very low rate of completion. He really was outstanding in that department, ranking amongst the top ten or fifteen safeties in the league last season. He can get better there, but he's really quite good as it is.
Oh - and Jairus Byrd is one heck of a good dude, too.
As we move ever closer to the 2010 season, health remains the biggest issue for Byrd. He is without question the best playmaker our defense has, but that's not going to help much if he can't stay on the field. From there, getting even slightly better against the run - even if it means getting slightly worse against the pass - would be a strong development for Byrd's future prospects.
I've spoken at length about Buffalo's need to find another playmaker defensively to take some of the pressure off of Byrd (see the linked Leodis McKelvin article below). That would be nice, but it's imperative if Byrd slips. This is a free safety that is so dynamic when the ball is in the air that, with another strong season, could become a player that opposing offenses truly fear in our defensive backfield. He might never become a prototypical safety capable of dominating games in all phases. That shouldn't overshadow the fact that, as he is right now, he's pretty freaking good. Byrd's contributions are not only vital to the team's successes or failures in 2010, but for many years to come, as well.
Ten Bills To Decide 2010
10. G/C Eric Wood
9. ILB Andra Davis
8. CB Leodis McKelvin
7. RB Fred Jackson