The fourth-ranked defense in the NFL last year got better in a big way last night, with the signing of free safety Jairus Byrd. The ex-Bill cost the Saints $54 million spread over six years, with $28 million guaranteed, making him the most expensive free agent to hit NOLA since Drew Brees.
He immediately upgrades the free safety position, which was manned by Malcolm Jenkins – now with the Philadelphia Eagles – up until yesterday. The numbers speak volumes for how big an upgrade Byrd is expected to be over Jenkins.
As the last line of defense on a team, safeties increasingly need to be good tacklers. Just ask Jenkins, who won’t be missed much in NOLA because of how often he took bad angles when tackling. In that category, Byrd is a massive upgrade over Jenkins. On plays when lined up in the box in the last two years, Byrd made tackles on 11.5 percent of runs – much better than Jenkins’ mark of 7.3 percent.
Missed tackles specifically hurt Jenkins in the eyes of Saints fans – Jenkins missed a tackle every 5.4 attempts (sixth-worst in the league). By contrast, Byrd missed a tackle on every 11.5 attempts. Solid tackling on the back-end of the Saints’ defense is something we can all finally look forward to seeing this year.
As a free safety, there’s nothing more important than pass coverage skills. In 2013, Jenkins had an NFL rating (quarterback’s passer rating when targeting him) of 103.3, whereas Byrd’s NFL rating was a phenomenal 30.5. Byrd also gave up only 51 yards after the catch last year, compared to the 199 given up by Jenkins.
Delving deeper into coverage statistics accentuates the difference in quality between the two safeties. As the primary man in coverage, Byrd allowed a reception every 32.6 snaps; however, Jenkins had an NFL low 12.7 snaps in coverage per reception allowed. Allowing 1.06 yards per cover snap tells us how great a liability Jenkins is in coverage compared to Byrd and his measly rate of 0.23 yards allowed per cover snap.
What the Saints fans will be salivating most about Byrd though will be his playmaking ability. Both Jenkins and Byrd were taken in the 2009 draft (Jenkins taken 14th overall and Byrd 42nd overall) and since then, Jenkins has totaled six interceptions to Byrd’s 22. Expect more takeaways this year with Byrd patrolling the deep zones.
That’s enough of numbers for now. It is one thing to excel in a system Byrd’s played in for four years, and another to step into the Saints’ system and do the same. Which begs the question: how will he fit into Rob Ryan’s scheme?
At first look, it’s a perfect fit. Ryan likes to field two safeties in his base defense, with three safeties on the field in nickel packages. Last year, the duo of Jenkins and Vaccaro manned the safety positions in base defense, with Vaccaro sliding inside to cover the slot and Bush/Harper taking his spot at safety in the nickel package.
With Byrd’s signing, all that changes is that Jenkins’ spot is now filled by the ex-Bill. I still expect Vaccaro to kick inside and take the slot in nickel packages, with Byrd remaining the free safety and Bush coming on to man the strong safety spot. While it won’t be identical to what he did in Buffalo – he spent most of the time playing the deep zone as a single-high safety – he’ll be able to adapt easily to Rob Ryan’s system.
Jenkins played in the box 37.7 percent of the time last year (mostly on run downs), whereas Byrd did the same on only 12.1 percent of plays. Given the aforementioned tackling superiority Byrd has over Jenkins though, this shouldn’t be a problem for him. Expect Ryan to tweak his system to allow Byrd to play in the box less than Jenkins’ high volume last year.
Another aspect of his system Ryan may end up changing to accommodate Byrd is how often he rushes his free safety. In 2013, he rushed Jenkins 35 times (resulting in three sacks), while also rushing Harper 36 times and Vaccaro 44 times. Meanwhile, Byrd rushed the QB as a Bill only 13 times (one sack). Byrd isn’t used to pass-rushing (neither is Bush, for that matter), and Vaccaro won’t be able to pick up the slack alone. Either Byrd will have to get used to it more or Ryan will have to tone down frequency with which he calls safety blitzes.
Byrd’s playmaking ability is well documented, as is his range (playing single high requires a great deal of lateral agility). Add to that his sure tackling, coverage skills and his football smarts and what you get is a premier free safety. With Byrd in the fold, this fledgling defense can finally take flight as one of the best in the NFL.