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In the end, Jairus Byrd behaved like a true gentleman. He thanked the Bills for giving him a chance in the NFL, praised the Buffalo fans, and deemed it an “absolute blessing” to have been part of the organization during the last five years.

Athletes can afford to be gracious after signing the deal of a lifetime. I have no such inhibitions. Really, an absolute blessing? I’m sure Byrd has some fond memories of time here, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that it was one endless, blissful partnership.

Byrd was insulted by Bills management, which never had any intention of paying him top dollar for an NFL safety, and by a sneering pocket of fans who dismissed him as an ingrate for having the nerve to stand his ground and demand his worth on the open market.

I could just hear the local apologists, hoping for Byrd to come crawling back to town with his tail between his legs after finding out that he had overestimated his value on the free-agent market.

So what happened? Byrd made one visit and – voila! – he got a six-year, $54 million deal from the Saints. His evil agent, Eugene Parker, had it right all along. Byrd was the top safety on the market, and one of the NFL’s smartest teams confirmed it by showing him the money.

The Bills’ best offer, according to two News sources, averaged $7.5 million a year. That tells me they were never really in the game, that they wanted to put a sure losing hand on the table so they could say they tried.

A year earlier, they could have signed Byrd for a little over $8 million a year. One year later, the price went up. That’s how it goes in pro sports. It didn’t matter that Byrd hurt his team by sitting out the first five games of the season with a dubious plantar fasciitis injury, or that he lacks top-end NFL speed.

The Saints were willing to invest $9 million a year – 20 percent higher on average than Buffalo’s offer. Clearly, Doug Marrone’s former boss in New Orleans didn’t buy the notion that you don’t spend that kind of money on a safety, even a three-time Pro Bowler.

Call me gullible, but I trust the opinion of men who have won a Super Bowl and been consistent postseason contenders over an organization that has missed the playoffs 14 seasons in a row.

Our old friend, safety Donte Whitner, got $7 million a year in free agency from Cleveland. Byrd made more big plays in five games than Whitner did in five years here. Byrd is certainly worth $2 million more.

The Saints, desperate for a playmaker in the secondary, were willing to “overpay.” Teams will do that when they feel they’re a player away, or when they need to fill a big need on their team. It often doesn’t work, but sometimes you have to take a shot.

In fact, all three of the Bills’ AFC East rivals did just that in free agency this week:

The Patriots gave Darrelle Revis, the top cornerback on the market, a one-year, $12 million deal; the Jets signed Eric Decker, the best available wideout, for five years, $36.25 million; Miami handed Branden Albert, the top offensive tackle, five years, $47 million.

Maybe they’re all overpaid, but the division just got tougher. Revis is the best corner in the game. Decker’s numbers will go down without Peyton Manning, but his deal is similar to Stevie Johnson’s, and he’s just as good. The Dolphins’ line was a mess after the Richie Incognito debacle, so the Albert move makes sense.

The Bills made their big free-agent splash two years ago with Mario Williams, which limits their financial flexibility. They’re also looking down the road at possible extensions for Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn and Stephon Gilmore – part of their rationale for not keeping Jairus Byrd OR Andy Levitre.

So I didn’t expect the Bills to go for the top free agents. But I figured Doug Whaley would grab a couple of second-tier guys. Instead, he went for third-tier players. Chris Williams and Keith Rivers aren’t ascending players, they’re guys who have failed elsewhere.

Chris Williams, the new left guard, was the weakest link on the Rams’ line. He’s considered one of the Bears’ biggest draft busts of the past decade. Williams said the snow didn’t bother him. Maybe that’s because the Bills were gifting him with a $3.375 million salary.

Rivers will help at linebacker, but he’s not a run stuffer who can play the middle and allow Kiko Alonso to move outside. He’s more likely to spell Manny Lawson, last year’s journeyman pickup, at the strong-side ’backer position.

Corey Graham is a nice story and provides depth at cornerback. It wasn’t a position of great need, but you can never have enough capable corners nowadays – as they found out early last season. Graham, a former special team Pro Bowler, will be a great asset on kick coverage for a team that ranks low on touchbacks.

The Bills re-signed tight end Scott Chandler on Thursday, keeping a dependable receiver in the fold. They haven’t gotten significantly better. They approached free agency like a team that believes it’s on the rise and had a few holes to fill, a team with a lot of budding stars on the roster.

A team that could afford to let their most decorated player, a three-time Pro Bowler, walk out the door.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com