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New Orleans Saints: The case for one more year of Jairus Byrd

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Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) celebrates his interception in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) celebrates his interception in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /
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The New Orleans Saints will finally have some breathing room under the cap for the 2017 offseason. But even with more cap space than they’ve had in a few years, they are well behind the league average.

There’s reason to believe the New Orleans Saints will look to cut or restructure some of their less productive veterans in order to free up more space. Jairus Byrd is a popular name among fans and media outlets for either one of these moves.

But it would be a mistake for the Saints to cut Byrd in 2017. Wait until 2018.

The Saints have a history of tying up big money in underachieving players, and then cutting them once it’s clear that they’d made a mistake. The dead money that accumulates from these moves has been a thorn in the Saints side for years.

Finally, it’s looking like the team might be crawling out of the dead money dungeon. So why tie up more dead money in a player that has contributed positively all year?

And don’t mistake it: Byrd has contributed positively all year. He’s been one of the defense’s most consistent performers, and arguably their best tackler, ever since his benching after Week 3.

We’ll get to his contract later. But in 2017, the Saints defense would be much worse without Jairus Byrd in the lineup.

There are more than a few things he needs to clean up, to be sure. The Saints benched Byrd after a Week 3 matchup with the Falcons after Byrd failed to have an impact in the run game. We all remember him getting juked out of his shoes by Devonta Freeman in that game. And that’s an unfortunate pattern that Byrd needs to improve on.

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The pattern there, with Byrd’s run defense, is that he occasionally takes poor angles when crashing down to the LoS. And as he’s typically playing in a deep safety role, his poor angles can mean the difference between a 10-yard run and a touchdown.

In the Saints Week 17 matchup with the Falcons, Devonta Freeman broke out for a 75-yard touchdown right through the tackles after Byrd took a poor angle in contain. There were other instances of this during the season, but none sticks more in my mind. It was the cherry on top of an altogether horrid first half performance from the defense.

But looking past those poor angles for a minute, and you’ll see that Byrd typically impacts the game in more positive ways.

Especially towards the later half of the season, it felt like Byrd really came into his own. He’s not the ball-hawking playmaker that he was in Buffalo, but that’s likely more of a product of scheme than anything else at this point. Scheme and a lack of pass rush.

Dennis Allen moved Byrd around a bit more as the season progressed. He often had him covering RBs in the flat, or playing a “robber” role in the intermediate middle of the field, rather than exclusively as a single-high safety. And Byrd excelled in both roles.

To my eye, he was most impressive covering RBs.

November 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back DuJuan Harris (32) runs with the football against New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) during the first quarter at Levi
November 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back DuJuan Harris (32) runs with the football against New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) during the first quarter at Levi /

You could certainly make the argument that Vaccaro is the most capable tackler on this defense, but I’m going to go with Byrd. Vaccaro is simply more athletic. He makes more eye-popping plays. But I’ve seen Vaccaro miss more arm tackles than Byrd. Byrd comes crashing into his target and does a fantastic job of wrapping up the waist and legs. He’s got great technique, and is surprisingly strong. And in these simple read-and-react plays, he almost never takes improper angles.

It’s a real asset to a team that likes to play with three safeties instead of three linebackers. But if the Saints want to keep their linebackers off the field, Byrd will need to improve his angles coming in as a deep-safety. The defense isn’t talented enough to endure those breakout runs.

When evaluating Byrd’s future with the Saints, you have to consider what the Saints could do to replace him.

With a cap hit of $11.7 million in 2017, it’s easy to say the Saints should see more production from the soon-to-be 30-year-old safety. But the question is not whether or not Byrd deserves the contract he originally signed with the Saints. He does not.

The question is whether or not the Saints could replace his production with the amount of money they’d save by cutting him. And the answer? They could not.

Cutting Byrd in 2017 would save the Saints $3.7 million in cap space. Now, to be fair, that’s more space than they used to sign Byrd originally in 2014. And Byrd was the highest profile free agent of that offseason. So it’s not like it’s impossible to bring in top-tier talent with that room.

But that would mean back-ending a contract to the extreme. And don’t get me wrong—I like the back-end strategy. With the cap continually on the rise, it makes sense to bring in talent and let them develop into fixtures on the roster. Of course, you need to bring in the right talent. 

I’d much rather keep Byrd on the roster through 2017. Let him try to earn the rest of his contract.

Most likely, Byrd will be cut after the 2017 season. There’s simply too much money tied up in the underperforming safety. But there’s no sense in cutting him in 2017, when the cap space wouldn’t make up for the lost talent.

In 2018, the Saints could cut Byrd to free up $7.6 million for that year alone. That would leave a total of $5.8 million in dead money on their books over a two-year period, but would save the team $16.6 mil over those same two years.

The question is: can Byrd play well enough to merit that sort of spending? And remember, it’s not a question of his total cap hit, but of how much the team can save by cutting him. I’d be shocked if Byrd can play up to the $7.6 million level in 2018, much less the $9 million in 2019. But he can play up to the $3.7 in 2017.

And you have to consider, too, who the team could plug in behind him.

Vonn Bell has all the tools to be an effective safety in this league. But in his rookie year, he made more than a few mistakes, and it cost the defense. Until he can develop into the player the Saints hope he can be, the team can’t afford to let Byrd walk. The Saints were stuck with Roman Harper for much of this year.

Next: Saints' free agency: Dividing up the money

They’d do well to bring in some solid backup talent this year, to develop chemistry for Byrd’s eventual release. When Bell was drafted, we all pegged him as the eventual usurper of Byrd’s starting spot. Well, it doesn’t look like Bell will be ready for that in 2017. So keep Byrd on, at least for this year. Bring in some talent behind him, develop Bell, and see where things go from there.

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