Byrd’s Contract Crisis

 

In the fall of 2008, Buffalo Bills star left tackle Jason Peters held out the entire preseason to display his displeasure with his current contract. Holding out is nothing new to the NFL, but in this case it was quite a dilemma for the Bills. Peters wasn’t a typical high drafted, blue chip stud in the prime of his career, who couldn’t stand the thought of making five million when he could be making eight. No, Peters was an undrafted tight end that caught on with the Bills, who thought they could build on his athleticism and turn him into a serviceable offensive tackle. Peters did just that, and eventually beat out former 4th overall pick Mike Williams for the starting right tackle job in 2006. Peters was rewarded for this by signing a 5 year, $15 million dollar contract with the Bills. However, two years later and Peters had been moved to the blind side, and been selected to an all-pro team. On one hand, he was still under contract for the remaining three years of his contract, on the other, he was only 26 years old and playing on the contract he signed as a right tackle. In comparison, both Flozell Adams of the Cowboys and Michael Roos of the Titans both signed new contracts that spring giving each of them six year contracts worth $42 and $43 million respectively, and in 2006 the five time pro bowler Walter Jones was rewarded with a six year $50 million dollar contract. According to the Buffalo News, Peters was looking for a contract that paid him between 8 and 11 million annually. Peters, heavily encouraged by super agent Eugene Parker, sat out the pre-season of 2008, only to return for the first season game and eventually was once again an all-pro selection. The Bills, not wishing to re-sign Peters to the richest offensive line contract in NFL history, or willing to risk the situation getting any worse, shipped Peters off to Philadelphia in the spring of 2009 for a 1st and 4th round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, and a conditional 6th round pick in 2010. This story has absolutely nothing to do with the current situation of Buffalo’s young safety Jairus Byrd, other than employing the same agent as Peters while entering the final year of his rookie contract. Though both parties have openly admitted they hold no animosity towards one another, this situation will be the deciding factor.

Since he became a Bill in 2009, Byrd has become a fan favorite, but not strictly due to his play on the field. Take former Bills safety Donte Whitner for example. Whitner was drafted 8th overall to replace the recently released Lawyer Milloy. Whitner was far from a household name when he was drafted, as most thought Buffalo would address their poor defensive tackle situation by adding a player like Haloti Ngata out of Oregon, once the Texas safety Michael Huff was already off the board. Whitner was a solid, yet unspectacular player for Buffalo. Constantly criticized for his lack of turnovers, his high draft selection, and his self-awarded “leadership” role; Whitner finally left Buffalo on a very low note by not showing up for media day following the season finale, cleaning out his locker prior to the media’s arrival. After numerous attempts to make his case to the media regarding his contract wishes with Buffalo, Whitner was not resigned and eventually landed with the San Fransisco 49ers a few long months later. Byrd, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite of Whitner. Byrd was not a top 10 selection, he constantly makes game changing plays, and is known for being a quiet leader; known to lead by example. This approach to the game, and overall demeanor, has made Byrd a fan favorite for Bills fans. Byrd is very accountable when he makes mistakes, and is always looking to improve regardless of how well he plays.

Byrd’s greatest attribute to date is something that often gets overlooked when talking about the Bills safety. Analytically I’m sure there are tons of ways you can consider Byrd to be a great player. Most notably, he graded out the 25th overall player in PFF’s 2012 player rankings, stating that he is the best deep safety in the league and wasn’t beaten for a touchdown all year. Byrd is stout against the run, very disciplined in coverage, and has very impressive numbers. However, Byrd’s greatest attribute is his ability to make game changing plays, something that is not common by NFL safeties these days. Coming up big in crucial situations is not something that can be measured on the stats sheet, or by the analytics sites on the internet; being a clutch player is an attribute inherited through consistent play, to a point where quarterbacks fear throwing in a players vicinity in crucial situations. Take the 2012 week eleven, Thursday night game against the Dolphins for example. While many Bills fans will argue that the Bills had the Dolphins on the ropes, I would argue that the pessimist Bills fan in me was already picturing a Tennessee-like repeat (see final minute, Week 7), where Tannehill would lead a game winning drive and spoil Buffalo’s dim playoff hopes. After a 3rd down conversion to Brian Hartline, Tannehill had two minutes on the clock to try to play spoiler to the wild prime time Bills crowd. Two plays later, Tannehill tried to find Davone Bess on an “out-and-up” pattern along the left sideline, only to see Byrd fly in to make the acrobatic diving interception. In the words of Deion Sanders it was, “an Ed Reed type of play”. Byrd had many balls luckily fall into his hands a rookie, but has since built his game to be anything but “flukey”. Instead of being known as strictly a ball hawking “center fielder” as many assumed he was during his rookie campaign, Byrd has worked to solidify his game and is now a complete safety, notably excelling in run support. While he is not yet on the same level as guys like Polomalu or Reed were during their prime, Byrd possesses the same clutch factor that made both household names throughout their respective careers.

Despite all the glaring reviews and analysis of Byrd, one case still remains. Byrd is expected to be the highest paid safety in the NFL, especially considering his agent Eugene Parker is known to squeeze every last penny out of teams when negotiating for his clients. According to the Bills beat writer Chris Brown, the Bills have until July 15th to negotiate a new contract before Byrd’s franchise tender must be signed, and the Bills will have to wait until after the 2013 season to do a new deal. Based on last years numbers, one would assume he would be looking to top (or at least match) the contract signed by Dashon Goldson in Tampa Bay for 5 years and $41.25 million dollars ($22 million guaranteed). That’s quite the price for a safety, regardless of his talent. However, signing Byrd wouldn’t be simply a personnel decision to keep the talented safety in Buffalo, it would be much more. Signing Byrd would give hope to the young Bills players (and potential free agents) that this franchise is trying to build into contender. Signing Byrd would give players like Marcell Dareus and Eric Wood more motivation to sign with the team following the 2013 season, as well as CJ Spiller who (if he plays at the same level he did last year) will be the next in line for a very large pay raise. Buffalo is not a good enough team to let one of their only all-pro talented players walk. According to recent reports, Buffalo is approximately $19 million under the 2013 salary cap, further, the Bills could save nearly $3 million if they decide to cut Brad Smith, pushing this number to a hypothetical $22 million dollars under the cap. Buffalo seems to be in a perfect position to make Byrd the highest paid safety in the NFL. So is Byrd worth the contract he is expected to ask for to stay in Buffalo? Based on all the external factors involved, as well as the impact Byrd would have in Buffalo for the immediate future, it would seem to be a no-brainer. We’ll see if Doug Whaley feels the same way.

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