Releasing Byrd is a bold move, but is in line with some of Payton’s past mistakes

Dec 11, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) and New Orleans Saints free safety Vonn Bell (48) talk during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 11, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) and New Orleans Saints free safety Vonn Bell (48) talk during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Orleans Saints reportedly plan to release Jairus Byrd at the beginning of free agency.

The move is bold and, in my opinion, encouraging. But it is also reminiscent of some of the personnel mistakes that the New Orleans Saints have made in recent years.

When I say I find the move encouraging, I mean simply that the move indicates that Payton and the front office believe the roster has the potential to improve more dramatically than it would with Byrd. It means that their envisioned 2017 roster is even further removed from 2016.

Assuming the Saints designate Byrd as a post-June 1st cut, the move saves them $7.8 million dollars against the cap in 2017. That’s no chump change.

The question is: can the Saints replace Byrd’s 2016 production (which was not insignificant) with that $7.8 in savings?

The Saints obviously believe that they can. And that’s the encouraging sign. Byrd did not have a spectacular year by any means, but he was solid. He covered well in the flats and was a very sound tackler, especially towards the later half of the year. That improvement suggested to most analysts that Byrd would get one more year in Black and Gold.

But the Saints feel that they can get more for their money. We all knew the sort of player that Byrd was. He wasn’t worth that $11.2 million cap hit in 2017, but considering the Saints only get a portion of that back in savings I was willing to let it ride.

And whether the Saints look to replace Byrd’s presence on the field with a CB or another safety, I’m encouraged to think that they envision an improved roster in his stead. This move is not addition by subtraction or a signal for a longer rebuild. The move indicates that we can, in an ideal world, expect an improvement in the secondary by next season.

The problem is that this is not an ideal world.

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Byrd wasn’t going to magically become the star that he was brought in to be. He almost certainly wouldn’t play up to his expensive contract. But he was a known commodity who, after a consistent improvement in 2016, could be counted on for a certain level of production. He was a veteran presence for a very young secondary. And his release is reminiscent of past moves like the release of veteran leaders like Malcolm Jenkins and Jonathan Vilma in 2013.

The departure of those players caused two major problems for the Saints defense.

One: the sudden absence of defensive leadership led to an inexperienced unit falling apart at the seams after a very strong 2013 campaign. I’d have to expect that the Saints learned their lesson here. It never seemed like Byrd was the vocal leader that Jenkins and Vilma were. In the secondary, Kenny Vaccaro seems like the more important veteran presence. For a unit as young as this secondary, veteran presence can’t be taken for granted. But I expect Payton and Dennis Allen figured as much.

Two: the holes opened up by the release of Jenkins and Vilma led the Saints to gamble in free agency. Most notably, the hole at safety led the Saints to sign Jairus Byrd.

What I mean to say here—and this is why the move is bold—is that the Saints are now banking on their free agent evaluators to bring in value and production at a position where they could have had a relatively solid level assured to them. The Saints had a solid contributor in Byrd. Yes, they’ll roll the dice and have a shot at getting a much-improved player somewhere else in the free agent pool. But if they fail to replace his production, they’re at a loss.

Again, that replacement could just as easily be a cornerback as a safety. But this move all but guarantees that the Saints will need to pursue a starter somewhere along that secondary.

The Saints have $7.8 million more to spend on their offseason. They’re expressing faith in their ability to evaluate and bring in productive players on defense. They’re also expressing faith in the development of Vonn Bell, and possibly on the healthy return of safety Erik Harris.

With their recent string of unimpressive free agent signings—see Coby Fleener, C.J. Spiller, and Byrd himself—the question now looms over their heads. Can the Saints find players to come in and play well? Payton’s always been a great coach. But he is, for all purposes, also the team’s GM. And he still needs to show improvement in that field.

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I believe the signs are there for the Saints to come out and land some quality free agents. Even with these bad sigings, Payon’s landed some quality players. Craig Robertson, Sterling Moore, Nick Fairley. Payton signed all these players in 2016 and all of them had much stronger seasons than the league expected. The Saints have once again picked up the dice, and we’ll see how the roll comes out this time. And there’s reason for optimism. But there’s also reason to worry.