One of the things I love about this site is how frequently our members made really smart arguments that change my mind on issues and make me see my previous thinking was flawed. There is a group here that has been vocal about how the Jets should have interest in Bills free agent to be safety Jairus Byrd. I initially was lukewarm, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced I was stuck in tunnel vision. I was so focused on the Jets' need to fix the offense that I ignored both how good Byrd is and that improving the defense and fixing the offense won't be mutually exclusive propositions. Although the offense is in worse shape, the defense needs an infusion of talent at some key spots, including safety.
Byrd has been one of the top safeties in football from the moment the Bills took him in the second round of the 2009 Draft. He has been an All Pro in three of his five NFL seasons and nobody has had more than the 22 interceptions he has registered since entering the league. He has a reputation as a ballhawk, but after watching him, I'm convinced he's an all around safety.
Byrd is not great in man coverage. He is a bit undersized at 5'10" and is not very fast in a straight line. If you think he's going to be a Gronkowski stopper, you will probably be disappointed. From what I have watched of him, though, that seems like the only thing he does not do well. He covers a lot of ground as the last line of defense. He has top notch ball skills. He has excellent instincts. He takes good angles and is a very sound tackler. He hits deceptively hard. He almost does it all.
A safety like this is a key ingredient to getting a Rex Ryan defense to maximize its potential. There are two reasons for this. First, Rex in his heart loves to send all kinds of exotic and aggressive pressure packages. That leaves a lot of stress on the players at the back end, who frequently have to match up one on one. Having somebody he can trust to cover that much ground in the back to prevent catastrophe if the play does not work as designed opens up a lot of the playbook. Second, these pressure packages are designed to produce errant throws so a safety who has the skills and the instincts to get to these throws and turn them into game-changing interceptions maximizes what this defense can do. He also have scheme familiarity after playing for Mike Pettine in 2013.
There will be a couple of complications if the Jets want to snag Byrd. First, one of the reasons he has not been locked up by the Bills is reportedly his insistence on being the highest paid safety in the league. With multiple teams sure to bid on his services, we might be talking in excess of the $9.8 million Troy Polamalu is getting annually or the $50 million and almost $26 million guaranteed Eric Berry is getting. Byrd is great, but that is a ton of money.
Also while it might be true that a top notch safety can take a Rex Ryan defense to the next level, the Jets have shown little willingness to invest premium resources in the position during the Ryan Era. The starters have been inherited (Kerry Rhodes, Eric Smith), low cost free agents (Jim Leonhard, Brodney Pool, LaRon Landry, Dawan Landry, Ed Reed), and a late round pick (Antonio Allen). Now I'm sure Rex isn't saying, "I do not want a great safety!" I'm also sure circumstances of players available against the team's resources have played a role. Still, five years in you can usually get a good idea of what a coach prioritizes. I'm sure Rex would take a great safety, but it seems like he just wants somebody he views as functional, smart enough to know where to be, and able to get everybody lined up correctly in this complicated defense. The premium resources are better spent on the defensive line and cornerback. While I couldn't rule out the Jets showing interest in Byrd, it would be a marked departure from their recent philosophy at the position.
To get Byrd, the Jets probably would have to spend at least in the Eric Weddle, Dashon Goldson range of $40 million, $8 million annually, and a little under $20 million guaranteed. Byrd is a difference-maker, though, and probably worth that kind of money. I think the Jets can probably splurge on one top tier free agent, and Byrd would probably be the best bet if Jimmy Graham is not available. If the Jets did make Byrd the highest paid safety in the league, I wouldn't love it, but I also don't think I'd be angry. This team could really use a playmaker like this on the defense.