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FA Spotlight: T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd

T.J. Ward

Bio: Ward, the 1st cousin of Maurice Jones-Drew, started out humbly as a walk-on at Oregon before rising up to be a 2nd round draft pick of the Browns in 2010. Ward started all 16 games his rookie year before missing a total of 10 games his next 2 seasons. Ward took off this past season and gained 2nd Team All-Pro honors.

Jets Needs: The Jets have needed help at the safety position for quite a few years now as they really have not had a particularly good safety since Kerry Rhodes left a few years ago. The Jets have had massive problems in coverage against TE's the last few years, largely due to lack of impact coverage safeties. The current situation is at best ok, but not particularly great. Antonio Allen has shown some potential, but I'm not all that certain he'll be anything above mediocre and he's the best of the lot. Dawan Landry is ok and Ed Reed stinks and hopefully Rex will have enough sense to not play him much. There is no impact safety currently on this roster and the Jets defense desperately needs one.

Will he be re-signed: The Browns have oodles of cap space available entering the offseason (to put it into perspective, they might start off with more cap space than the Jets will end up with even after all the likely cuts), so I'd think it's entirely likely that they'll want to re-sign Ward. Still, the Browns FO situation is a big mess and pretty tough to predict, so I'm not going to try to imagine what they'll cook up. Furthermore, the Browns have been pretty decent on defense but majorly need offensive help and may decide to focus their energies on that side of the ball in FA.

How would he fit the Jets: That's actually a pretty good question. Ward has made his name mostly as an elite run defender out of the safety spot but has had his coverage skills called into question and he doesn't really pick off many passes at all. As mentioned above, the Jets really need a safety who can cover TE's well and I'm not sure that Ward fits that bill. Still, Ward would be a vast improvement over the Jets current crop of safeties and probably will come at a more palatable price than some of the bigger safety names.

Why this would be a good move: PFF already raved about Ward prior to the 2012 season in a piece titled "Secret Superstar: T.J Ward, S, Cleveland Browns". Keep in mind that this piece was written 2 seasons ago and Ward has improved quite a bit since then. For this past season, PFF ranked him as the 3rd best safety with an overall grade of +14.5 and named him as one of their Pro Bowl starters at Strong Safety along with Donte Whitner. PFF also labels Ward "the NFL's best run-stopping defensive back" and has pretty good things to say about his current coverage skills as well.

Some players’ focus on the run comes at a detriment to their pass coverage, but Ward certainly holds his own there. His only passing touchdown allowed all season was on a tough back-shoulder throw to Joseph Fauria. He was solid in zone coverage underneath, as his game-sealing pick-six against the Bills can attest. But he was also capable in slot man coverage, exemplified by his tipped pass in the end zone versus Brandon Marshall to cause an interception in Week 15.

Overall, a dominant run-stopper and adequate pass coverage safety sounds like a pretty good fit for the Jets.

Why this would not be a bad move: The Jets run defense is already elite so it may not make the most sense to target a safety whose primary skill comes in stopping the run. Furthermore, the FA safety class is pretty loaded so it may just make more sense to target another player who is better in pass coverage than Ward.

Verdict: It's heartening to see that Ward has come a long way as a coverage safety, and if it is indeed the case that he can now cover fairly well, I definitely think he's worth a shot. I also don't think it's all that bad to have a player who will make our run defense even more impressive. I think the Jets should go after Ward, especially if he costs less than the other top-rung guys.

Jairus Byrd

Bio: Byrd was selected in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft by the Bills and actually was a college teammate of Ward's, providing a potent safety tandem for the Oregon Ducks. Since he was drafted, Byrd has been nothing short of spectacular, making the Pro Bowl 3 times over his 5 seasons of play. Byrd started out with a bang, intercepting 9 passes and breaking up 11 others as a rookie, despite only starting 11 games. Since then he hasn't been as prolific in that department, intercepting just 13 passes over his next 4 seasons and never topping 5 in a year. Overall though, Byrd is still viewed as one of the best safeties in the league.

Jets Needs: As mentioned above by Ward, the Jets need major help at the safety position.

Will he be re-signed: The Bills do have a nice amount of cap room (over $20 million) and don't really have any other major of their own free agents that they need to re-sign, so it is quite conceivable that they'll want to re-sign Byrd. Still, Byrd is likely to cost a pretty penny and the Bills have lots of holes, so they may decide not to spend all that cap space trying to retain him.

How would he fit the Jets: Byrd is best known as being a coverage safety so his fit with the Jets would probably be pretty good. Additionally, forcing turnovers was something the Jets defense was terrible at this past season and while Byrd hasn't intercepted a ton of passes the last few years, he still has had a fairly respectable amount. Byrd is lightyears better than any safety the Jets currently have on the roster.

Why this would be a good move: Pretty much, Byrd is an elite cover safety who would hopefully put an end to all teams targeting us with their TE, regardless of whether that TE is actually any good or not. While the Jets over the past few years (ok, not this past season) have been consistently good at shutting down other teams WR threats, they have always allowed opposing TE's to run wild. If the Jets defense wants to be truly elite, this has to stop. Signing Byrd would be a good start.

As Grantland noted prior to this season regarding Byrd

Game in 25 words or fewer: Safety with elite cover skills who makes plays on the ball, gives up few big plays, and has eliminated inconsistencies in the run game.

PFF also had fantastic things to say regarding Byrd prior to this season

Jairus Byrd, Safety

In 2011 Byrd did enough to convince us big things were in store for his future. Well, 2012 was an even bigger step forward where he put forth a season that should have earned him All-Pro honors. He finished second in our safety rankings with the highest grade of all his peers in coverage. That’s what happens when you’re targeted 21 times and manage to pick off five balls and not allow a single touchdown.

Overall, Byrd would probably be a great fit.

Why this would be a bad move: Byrd probably wants an enormous contract, and it may not be financially prudent for the Jets to hand out such a large contract to a player at a position that is otherwise loaded in FA. It may be a better idea for the Jets to sign one of the lesser, but still good, FA safeties out there and not spend all the money on Byrd.

Verdict: Unless Byrd demands an insane contract, I think the Jets would be pretty stupid to not heavily pursue him.

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