5 Reasons the Philadelphia Eagles Should Sign Jairus Byrd over T.J. Ward
The Philadelphia Eagles' glaring need for a safety is no secret to the fans. The organization gambled on a pair of veterans a year ago, whiffing on both Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung. The former didn't even make the roster, while the latter was exposed all season.
Fifth-round rookie Earl Wolff saw some playing time in year one, but he's not a promising player yet. Expecting a defensive coordinator to win with players like Wolff and Nate Allen is asking too much.
That's why general manager Howie Roseman needs to sign one of the elite safeties on the open market.
Buffalo's Jairus Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward are the unquestioned top two players at their position. Neither was franchised by their respective team, meaning they will be allowed to test their offers from the rest of the league. Considering each is coming off a Pro Bowl season, the Eagles would be extremely fortunate to grab either player.
So which one should Roseman sign? They're similar players in some aspects. Each is a former Oregon Duck, giving immediate ties to Eagles head coach, Chip Kelly. Both were second-round picks, and they're far better than anyone on the Eagles' roster. But they’re vastly different in the style of football they play.
Byrd would make the better fit for Philly, though, and the Eagles shouldn't be shy about paying him what he's worth for numerous reasons.
1. Byrd Is an Elite Cover Safety
Players of Jairus Byrd's caliber aren't easy to find. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler in just five NFL seasons. He leads all safeties with 22 interceptions since 2009. And he is as superb a cover safety as there is in this league, outside of Earl Thomas (who will be locked up long-term in Seattle).
Safety was a glaring weak spot on the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles. While the secondary recorded a high number of interceptions, it ranked dead-last in passing yards allowed. Seven times Philly surrendered more than 300 passing yards in a game.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Nate Allen rated near the middle of the pack (44th) with a 93.0 passer rating allowed. Earl Wolff was substantially worse, checking in at 112.2, while Patrick Chung was near the bottom 10 at 124.7. The trio combined for just two interceptions in over 2,400 defensive snaps.
Compare that to Byrd. Despite missing five games with plantar fasciitis, Byrd still recorded four interceptions. That's double what the Eagles' safeties had as a team. He rated as the eighth-best safety in the league, per PFF. Byrd's 35.0 passer rating allowed was the second-best mark of all safeties.
And that wasn't a fluke. Byrd has been a big-play machine his whole career. He recorded nine interceptions as a rookie. He's had at least three picks in four of his five campaigns. He’s even forced 11 fumbles since 2009, which rates tied for second-best at his position during that span.
2. Byrd Will Allow Billy Davis More Flexibility with His Defense
Simply put, Jairus Byrd is a better fit for the Philadelphia Eagles than T.J. Ward. Byrd is your classic free safety who can play center field. He’s talented enough in pass coverage that he can play a deep free safety and allow the strong safety to creep up to the line of scrimmage.
Billy Davis’ job was difficult enough in 2013, considering he had to compensate for the lack of talent in the back secondary. It would be remarkably easier with Byrd. A player like Richard Sherman is that lockdown corner who can just shut down the one side of the field. Byrd is that kind of a safety.
Cornerback Cary Williams overachieved in his first season in Philly, allowing a passer rating 18 points lower than he did the previous campaign in Baltimore. The Eagles may not be able to count on that kind of performance again. Brandon Boykin is an emerging Pro Bowl player, but he’s still best suited in the slot, due to his smaller frame.
Regardless of whether the Eagles draft a corner in the first round this May, a player like Byrd can do wonders for their defense. He’s probably the second-best safety in the league, behind just Earl Thomas. Ward is a top-10 or -15 safety, but he’s just not the impact player Byrd is.
3. Byrd Is Way Better Than Ward, and He’s Been Doing It Longer
Jairus Byrd has been a safety of All-Pro skills during his NFL career, playing his best football as a rookie but continuing his outstanding play through last season. He’s just a natural ballhawk who records a slew of interceptions and forced fumbles each year.
T.J. Ward developed slower, finally blossoming into a Pro Bowl player by 2013. Ward played all 16 games, rating as the third-best safety in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Ward is the best in the business in stopping the run, and he’s a safety who plays so far up in the box that at times he seems to be another linebacker.
The Philadelphia Eagles rated much better against the run a year ago. They were in the top 10 in total run defense and the fourth-best team in rushing yards allowed per attempt. Pro Football Focus rated Philly as the 11th best team in stopping the run, and the team should be better as they get more comfortable in the 3-4 defense.
It’s the secondary that will need more work. That’s why Byrd would fit the defense so well. He’s proven to be a perennial superstar, and he’s still just 27 years old. He missed five games last year but he had played in the previous 48 contests. In all, he’s still averaged 15 games in the last four seasons.
4. Byrd Is Not Going Back to Buffalo
It seems highly unlikely that Jairus Byrd returns to Buffalo. The team made that abundantly clear by refusing to franchise him, thus allowing him to hit the open market. And they locked up Byrd’s teammate, Aaron Williams, to a four-year, $26 million deal that makes Williams the 10th-highest paid safety in the league in terms of average net value per year.
The Bills won’t pay Byrd top money when they’re already paying Williams $6.5 million per year. Byrd will likely get a figure close to $10 million per year for five years; no team can afford to pay its safeties a combined $16 million per year. Currently, the Seattle Seahawks lead all teams with $11.2 million committed to their safeties in 2014, but Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are an exceptional duo that did just win a world championship.
Byrd’s displeasure in Buffalo has been evident for quite some time; he held out in training camp this past year and reportedly turned down a recent lucrative contract extension from the team.
Philadelphia would be an ideal fit for Byrd. Chip Kelly’s system worked like a charm in year one. Not only did the offense set franchise records in points scored and total yards gained, but a second-half hot streak brought home an NFC East division title. The defense was a strength as well, at one point going nine consecutive games without allowing more than 21 points.
Still, Philly’s glaring need for a safety suggests Byrd would fit right into that defense. People bought Kelly’s system extremely well in 2013, and Byrd has said he likes what the Eagles are doing. Logically, he could be the player to push the Eagles over the top.
5. The Eagles Have the Cap Space
There’s no reason for the Philadelphia Eagles to not sign a big-name safety. They have plenty of available cap space. The top player on the free-agent market happens to be a safety who attended the same college that Chip Kelly hails from. And that particular player is very clearly not returning to Buffalo.
Jairus Byrd would be a tremendous addition to the Eagles. He’s exactly what the team needs. Byrd is just 27 years old, and he’s in the prime of his career. He will cost a lot of money, but the Eagles have the cap space.
Per Eaglescap.com, Philadelphia has a little over $24 million in available cap space. Over the Cap checks in at $23.5 million. Regardless, there’s financial space should the Eagles want to sign a player. Releasing DeMeco Ryans would clear up close to $7 million. Trent Cole may be asked to take a pay cut. Fitting Byrd under the salary cap shouldn’t be a problem.
Byrd will likely become the NFL’s highest-paid safety, especially considering he’s on the record stating he wants that to be the case. That current honor belongs to Eric Berry in terms of total contract ($50 million), average pay per year ($8.3 million), and guaranteed money ($25 million). Seattle’s Earl Thomas may rewrite the books, but Byrd will be right near him.
A reasonable prediction for Byrd is five years at $10-11 million per year. Dashon Goldson got a five-year, $41.25 million deal last offseason, but Byrd is significantly better. Meanwhile, T.J. Ward would likely command around five years at $7-8 million per season, a deal slightly more than what Tennessee gave Michael Griffin the other year. That’s more practical, but the difference between Byrd and Ward suggests the Eagles should pay the extra money for the better player.
Philadelphia was burned badly by the Nnamdi Asomugha fiasco three offseasons ago, when the team made a huge splash in free agency and reaped little rewards. Asomugha was made the highest-paid corner in the game at five years, $60 million, and he was released after just two seasons. That may make the Eagles reluctant to pay another defensive back, but it shouldn’t.
Byrd is a different situation than Asomugha. They play different positions, they’re coming from different teams and the Eagles need Byrd more than they needed Asomugha. Philly already had Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie when they acquired Asomugha, and then defensive coordinator Juan Castillo utilized Asomugha poorly.
Billy Davis is a much better coordinator than Castillo. He did a great job with the Eagles in 2013, and it’s reasonable to expect he can duplicate that performance if Philly adds an All-Pro safety and maybe a first-round defensive player. Byrd really could be the kind of player who makes the Eagles a serious contender in '14, and they can't pass on him now.