As a boy, Jairus Byrd was always curious about big things. His mother, Marilyn, will never forget the day he asked about the size of the family swimming pool.
She provided the pertinent details.
“Well,” little Jairus replied, “mine is going to be 10 times as big!”
Sometime soon, Byrd will be able to afford the biggest pool he can find. He can buy the company if he likes. The Bills’ free safety has completed his rookie contract, and he is in line for a big raise that will make him among the highest-paid players at his position, and a very wealthy young man.
The question is whether that rich new deal will come from the Bills, who picked him in the second round of the 2009 draft. The Bills have slapped a one-year, $6.9 million, non-exclusive franchise tag on Byrd.
Byrd has not signed it. He wants a long-term deal commensurate with the top-paid safeties in the NFL. Under the non-exclusive tag, he can entertain offers from other teams. In that unlikely event, the Bills have the right to match or let him go and take two first-round picks as compensation.
So Byrd sits and waits. He was the only veteran who skipped the recent “voluntary” minicamp.
Before the draft, General Manager Buddy Nix said he hadn’t given Byrd much thought, though he wanted to sign him to a long-term deal and expects him in training camp. But Nix also said “the ball’s in his court.”
Byrd’s agent is Eugene Parker, whose unbending demands got Jason Peters traded from Buffalo four years ago. You can bet Parker wants Byrd to get top market value and will urge him to stand his ground – even if it means holding out of training camp or, in the worst case, sitting out the start of the season.
The Bills shouldn’t let it come to that. I’m not privy to negotiations, but it would be imprudent to play hardball with Byrd and risk alienating one of the top players and good guys on the team. It’s only May, but drafting safeties in consecutive rounds was a troubling sign that this could get ugly.
Why go to the mat with one of the few legitimate stars on your team? Go ahead, name the stars on the Bills. C.J. Spiller. Mario Williams, maybe. The list runs out fast, eh? When you’re trying to keep the affections of a dubious fan base, you celebrate your stars. You don’t go to war with them.
Here’s a quiz question: Going back to the 2002 draft (the first with Tom Modrak running the show), how many players have the Bills drafted who were voted to the Pro Bowl as position players?
The answer is one.
Byrd was voted to the AFC team as a rookie in 2009. That’s it. One guy in 11 drafts. Amazing. Other players were added as alternates (Spiller, Marshawn Lynch), or as special teamers (Terrence McGee).
So it’s not as if the Bills have been showering cash on their draft picks over the last decade or so. Yes, they’ve paid for production at times. They gave big extensions to Kyle Williams, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson. They gave Leodis McKelvin an overly generous four-year, $20 million deal a few months back.
But Byrd is one of the top players in the NFL at his position, a gifted playmaker who was the most consistent player on a weak defense. Byrd led the Bills with five interceptions and was fourth in tackles. On a better team, he would have made the Pro Bowl immediately (he wound up in Hawaii as a replacement for the Ravens’ Ed Reed). Prime example: Donte Whitner made it last year.
It’s clear from the draft that Doug Marrone wants playmakers. Byrd makes big plays. His diving interception in the Thursday night game against the Dolphins last November was the defensive highlight of the season. There’s no telling how many big plays he’ll make if the Bills get legitimate pressure in Mike Pettine’s defense.
When your draft picks hit big, you pay them. The Bills get criticized for their misses, but they nailed two second-rounders in 2009, Byrd and Andy Levitre. I saw the logic in letting Levitre walk. He’s a guard; they’re more easily replaceable. The Titans gave him six years, $46.8 million in free agency.
The Bills had better ways to spend Ralph Wilson’s money. Eric Wood, the other solid pick from the '09 draft, will come later. Now it’s Byrd’s turn.
How much? Eric Berry of the Chiefs is the highest-paid safety at $10 million a year. Berry, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, got that contract a year before the rookie wage scale went into effect. The Bills can argue that Berry’s deal came in an old system and is no longer the standard.
A more relevant comparison is Tampa free safety Dashon Goldson, who recently signed a five-year, $41.25 million free-agent contract with the Bucs.
Goldson made his second Pro Bowl last season with the NFC champion 49ers. He played last season on a $6.2 million franchise tag.
If I’m the agent, I make the case that Byrd is Goldson’s equal and more. Byrd has 18 career interceptions, third-most among NFL players in his four seasons.
Imagine the stats Byrd would accumulate on that San Francisco defense.
Parker might be shooting higher. I wouldn’t blame him after the Bills gave McKelvin, a borderline starting cornerback, a $5 million salary. But five years, $42.5 million seems reasonable. That’s $8.5 million a season, a tad more than Goldson. Byrd is two years younger.
Byrd is also a solid citizen, the product of a strong, religious family. His father, Gill, was a star defensive back in the NFL and a coach with Chicago until Lovie Smith was fired. When Jairus got the franchise tag, he tweeted out a link to a Bible passage. He and Gill have a program called Legacy Enterprises, which helps fathers and sons build closer relationships.
The Bills drafted some players with checkered backgrounds this year. Some fans welcomed it, saying the team could use an edge. There’s some truth to that. If you wrote off every football player who had an off-field indiscretion in college, there wouldn’t be a league.
But you don’t get many players with the talent and character of a Jairus Byrd.
He’s the sort of athlete you reward, and whom you build upon. The Bills say they believe in keeping their own. They can send a strong message to their fans, and to their locker room, by giving Byrd the deal he deserves.
Byrd has earned the right to think big. He’s a star. You don’t get better by throwing them back in the pool.