Buffalo Bills: Jairus Byrd

Brandon Spikes and Sammy Watkins -- in. Stevie Johnson and Jairus Byrd -- out.

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How would you grade the Bills' offseason?

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That has been the gist of the Buffalo Bills' offseason to date.

How does it compare to other teams across the NFL? On Thursday, ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando released his offseason grades Insider for each team. He combined his grades with those of four ESPN NFL analysts, including former Bills general manager Bill Polian, to help form a consensus.

For Buffalo, the grades ranged from a 'B' to a 'C-minus,' so Sando spoke to a current NFL general manager for extra perspective. Here is what he said about the Bills:

"Watkins dominated all the way through college, has rare measurables and plays with a mean streak, but if you are going to mortgage your future, you do it to get a quarterback, not a receiver," the GM said. "They gave up way too much. They mortgaged the future when they do not have a franchise quarterback, in my opinion. They will be looking for another QB in a year and they will not have a first-round pick to get him."

Sando settled on a 'C-plus' grade for the Bills, which ranks as the ninth-worst offseason in the NFL.

Let us know how you would grade the Bills' offseason in the poll above.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buckle your seat belts: the Buffalo Bills' next major contract negotiation is right around the corner.

Running back C.J. Spiller is able to become a free agent after this season. Speaking to reporters following his first offseason workout Tuesday, Spiller dropped a line that could send shivers down Bills fans' spines.

"It's my first rodeo. I'll take advice from guys that have been there before. I'll reach out to Jairus [Byrd] and see how he handled it," Spiller said. "I haven't talked to him. I've seen him this offseason but I will [reach out] eventually."

[+] EnlargeCJ Spiller
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesBills running back C.J. Spiller says he'd "love to stay here [Buffalo] and finish my career."
Byrd, of course, was in negotiations with the Bills for over a year until he signed a lucrative, six-year deal with the New Orleans Saints last month, so he's probably not the first person that Bills fans would want talking to Spiller.

Byrd was franchised last offseason and chose not to sign his tender, sitting out the offseason program and most of training camp. Spiller, on the other hand, was with his teammates Tuesday.

"The biggest thing is, I'm here. Last year, Byrd and his situation was different and he didn't show up," Spiller said. "And it worked out in his favor. But I'm here, ready to work."

Spiller was asked if he was taking part in the voluntary workouts as a sign of "good faith" in the upcoming negotiations.

"No, this is a lot of different things. I'm not the type of guy that -- I love being around my teammates. I love working out. So, is that going to boost anything? Who knows," Spiller said. "I can only control what I do. I can't worry about anything else. I understand that this is a business. Decisions have to be made. You have to respect that. But being here has nothing to do with that stuff."

As for any negotiations, Spiller is in the process of hiring an agent. Gary Wichard, who negotiated Spiller's rookie contract in 2010, died in 2011.

"Hopefully I'll get one pretty soon. I'll need one pretty soon. So I kind of got some guys in mind, that I'm looking at. I've had a chance to meet with a couple, so that process has been going pretty well so far," he said. "I just haven't really had enough time to really get into trying to really sit down and see who the best agent would be best for me, with different characteristics that I'm looking for.

"Because my previous guy, I had a unique bond with him and that's kind of what I'm looking for. So it will take a while to try to get a feel for guys, but through a lot of talks and a lot of prayer, I know I'm going to select the right person. So it's nothing to do with trying to delay any negotiations, because I haven't had any time. I've been spending time with my daughter and my family."

Spiller didn't say when he would like to begin negotiations with the Bills' brass.

"I haven't really given it any thought. I'm sure once that time comes, both parties will try to sit down and try to get something down and start negotiating. Right now, I'm pretty sure these guys are getting ready for the draft. I'm getting ready for the season," he said. "I haven't really given it any thought, about this possibly being my last year."

Playing into the contract talks will be the diminished market for free-agent running backs. As explored in a recent piece by ESPN's John Clayton, running backs are having trouble getting paid after reaching free agency.

Spiller still sees the position as valuable.

"If you look at this free agency, running backs really didn't make a big splash in the market. I don't know if teams just decided to make this a passing league, which it already is," Spiller said. "To me, you're always going to need a running back. A quarterback's best friend is the running game. Fortunately for us, that's what we're going to have here in Buffalo. We've had a great running game since I've been here.

"But some reason, some people started looking at that stat sheet, started looking at the age and different stuff, instead of looking at production and what guys done. Take Adrian Peterson, for instance. Look at his production. Look at Chris Johnson, who went for 1,000 yards for six straight seasons. So to me, you got to have a running back. You got to have more than one because of the season."

ESPN NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert recently examined running backs' performance as they age and found a "cliff" after age 27. Spiller, who turns 27 in August, brushed aside any fears of a possible decline.

"I don't think nothing about it. It's just somebody that came up with a stat. Good on their part," he said. "I don't think my play is going to decline. If you really go look at my body of work, I don't really have a ton of carries. I probably have maybe 600. And this is going into my fifth year. You look at other guys who have almost 2,000 carries, it's a huge difference.

"I don't think about it. I don't pay attention to it. I'll be 27 this year and if people say that's my peak, then that's them. But to me, I'm just going out there and just balling."

Spiller defended his play last season, when he was limited by an ankle injury but rushed for 933 yards.

"I was very pleased. Considering that I was playing on one wheel, really. Almost went for another 1,000-yard season," he said. "That was one of my big goals, trying to get back to that 1,000-yard season. Just came up short. To be able to do it on one wheel, that was pretty impressive."

However, Spiller's production and playing time dipped from the season prior. He and coach Doug Marrone seemed to be on different wavelengths at points last season, with Spiller eventually sitting out one game in October to rest his injured ankle.

"I won't forget what everybody was writing in the papers," Spiller said Tuesday. "What really stung? Everything. 'Should I [have] sat down? Was the 2012 year just a one-year thing?' But it is what it is. You guys get paid to do what you do, and I get paid to do what I do. Like I said, I'm gonna be ready to go this year and hopefully I can get back to that 2012 form."

Despite the potential to test the free-agent market next spring, Spiller said he would welcome a long-term deal with the Bills.

"I would. There's not too many guys that can say that they've played [their whole] career at one spot," he said. "But at the same time, you've got to be a realist with yourself and understand that this is a business, as well. But my goal -- I would love to stay here and finish my career -- but who knows how it'll play out."
General manager Doug Whaley said this week that the Buffalo Bills are no longer "in the active market" in free agency.

With that, it's time to look back on the past two weeks, over which time the Bills have added several new players and allowed others to sign with other teams.

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando has graded every team's performance Insider in free agency, assigning letter grades. Sando gave the Bills a 'D.'

Only the Dallas Cowboys (who also received a 'D') and the Oakland Raiders (who received an 'F') graded out as poorly as the Bills in Sando's piece.

Here is some of what Sando, with help from ESPN NFL Insider Louis Riddick, had to say about Buffalo:
The Bills lost their best young player (Jairus Byrd) and paid a relative premium for players such as Chris Williams, who has not been a consistent performer. They also continue to operate without a viable veteran quarterback behind EJ Manuel while other teams scrambled to sign the few available candidates.

It mostly falls in line with what we've said over the past two weeks.

The Bills are gambling by not addressing their quarterback depth chart this spring. They deserve credit for not overpaying for Byrd, but their plan to shore up their back end isn't clear. Tuesday's news that Corey Graham could contribute at safety is one factor that might change that.
With the dust having settled from the Jairus Byrd saga, what's left for the Buffalo Bills at safety?

Beyond Aaron Williams, there's a whole lot of uncertainty at the position. Between Byrd and Jim Leonhard -- who remains a free agent -- the Bills are set to lose a total of 16 games started at safety from last season.

That's not to say the Bills should have opened their wallets for Byrd, or that they should re-sign Leonhard, an undersized and aging player. But it means that they need to find a way to replace that production in their defense.

General manager Doug Whaley told WGR 550 on Friday that he expects Byrd's replacement to come from the current roster.

"That's the plan," Whaley said. "The young guys we have on the roster -- Duke Williams, [Jonathan] Meeks, and [Da'Norris] Searcy -- we think that competition between those three, we'll get a guy who will come out and help us win."

Is that really the best approach for the Bills?

Searcy is the most experienced option of the bunch. He had his best season under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last season, but his role isn't clear under Jim Schwartz. Pettine mostly used Searcy as a close-to-the-line player who could made an impact as a blitzer (he had 3.5 sacks). Schwartz figures to use two deep safeties more often.

That opens the door for Williams and Meeks. Yet both are raw prospects, seeing little-to-no action on defense last season.

Meeks played exclusively on special teams. He missed eight games with a broken ankle. Projecting him to a starting role would be a stretch.

Williams could be the most intriguing name of the group. He was a fourth-round draft pick last year but hardly made the most of his potential opportunities in the secondary.

When Byrd sat out training camp and the preseason, Williams had a chance to make a move. He didn't. The Bills signed Leonhard before their first regular-season game, and he took a lead role when Byrd sat out the first six games with foot soreness.

Even when injuries forced Aaron Williams back to cornerback, Duke Williams couldn't crack the rotation at safety. The Bills turned to Leonhard and Searcy instead.

Late in the season, Aaron Williams landed on injured reserve. The Bills were out of the playoff race. It would have been an ideal time for Duke Williams to get some snaps on defense. He didn't play a single down.

Competition is good, but when it's between three players who don't have starting experience or would be out of place as starters at this point in their careers, it's not an ideal situation.

Options remain on the free-agent market. Miami's Chris Clemons, New England's Steve Gregory and Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud all have extensive experience as starters. If their price tags are reasonable, why not create another layer of competition at the position?

It's just good business.
ByrdTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesThe Saints were aggressive early in free agency by striking a deal with Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.
None other than Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas himself nailed it on Tuesday night when he tweeted the words, “Copy cat league ..#NFL”

Teams around the NFL spent big Tuesday on safeties who might be able to make the kind of impact that Thomas has made with the reigning Super Bowl champs. None more so than the New Orleans Saints, who agreed to a six-year deal with former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd.

The deal is worth $9 million per year – a hefty price, indeed. But Byrd was rated by several media outlets as the No. 1 free agent available in the NFL, regardless of position.

Byrd has made three Pro Bowls in his five seasons with the Bills, racking up 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down the move from both perspectives:

Triplett: So how much of a game-changer did the Saints get in Byrd?

Rodak: There’s potential for him to be one, Mike. Byrd’s absence early last season hurt the Bills. Their secondary stumbled its way through a Week 3 loss to the New York Jets, which wound up being one of Geno Smith’s best games of the season. He tossed two long touchdown passes, exposing a weakness at safety when Byrd was injured. Overall, opposing quarterbacks had a 46.0 QBR and a 7.19 yards per attempt when Byrd was out. When he came back, that dropped to a 30.1 QBR and a 6.18 yards per attempt. Had he played the full season, Byrd statistically projected to have seven interceptions, which would have been the second-best mark of his career.

Mike, how the heck did the Saints manage to fit Byrd under their cap? I think that’s what surprised Bills fans the most -- that a team with about $2 million in cap space at the start of this week managed to nab one of the top free agents on the market.

Triplett: Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? Especially when it comes to salary-cap management.

I was a little surprised that the Saints aimed THAT high. But I fully expected them to make one or two aggressive moves, like when they signed cornerback Keenan Lewis last year under similar cap constraints. The Saints are bona fide Super Bowl contenders as long as quarterback Drew Brees remains in his prime. And they’ve shown that they’re willing to keep pushing salary-cap costs into future years as long as they’re in this window (Byrd's deal only counts $3.5 million against the cap in 2014).

Of course, it has meant releasing a ton of beloved veterans this offseason, when the Saints feel like their values no longer match up with the price tag. But the Saints clearly figured that Byrd could make a bigger impact going forward.

So I’ll ask you the flip side, Mike. Why do you think the Bills let Byrd get away? Any reason to worry that he won’t continue at this pace for another four or five years?

Rodak: I think that the Bills had reached a point with Byrd where they felt like there wasn’t going to be much of a future. They had been negotiating with him for over a year and once they decided not to franchise him, the writing was on the wall for his departure. Why didn’t they franchise him? I think that’s a decision that can be debated for years. General manager Doug Whaley said that they wanted "more amicable" negotiations, but it never seemed like talks changed course in the final week before free agency. Ideally, I think the Bills would have liked to franchise and trade him, but Whaley admitted that was a difficult proposition.

As for Byrd’s future, there are two concerns: his speed and his feet. ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian gave Byrd a B-minus for his free-agent tracker, calling him a “speed-deficient safety.” As Byrd gets into the later years of his Saints deal, that could become a greater concern. There’s also plantar fasciitis, a chronic foot condition that kept Byrd out of the first five games last season. He’s said that’s something he dealt with even before last season, and it’s something to monitor going forward.

Mike, do you think the pairing of Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro is now the best safety tandem in the NFL?

Triplett: Maybe outside of Seattle, anyway. Vaccaro showed a lot of promise as a rookie last year, and I think this frees the Saints up even more to use him as an attacker all over the field while trusting Byrd to help from the back end. Throw in Lewis, whom I thought deserved to go to the Pro Bowl as a No. 1 cornerback last year, and it’s quite the secondary the Saints are putting together. Not a bad complement to the Saints’ offense, obviously.

Hopefully it winds up as a win-win, with the Bills spending wisely on their future. I don’t mind saying that having covered Doug Marrone here in New Orleans, he’s one of my absolute favorites in the league.
Soon after news broke that safety Jairus Byrd signed a six-year, $54 million contract with the New Orleans Saints, several of his former Buffalo Bills teammates reacted on Twitter:

Just like that ... it's over.

The New Orleans Saints signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract Tuesday night, locking up the three-time Pro Bowl safety hours after the free-agent signing period opened.

Byrd
The writing for Byrd's departure had been on the wall since the Buffalo Bills decided not to franchise him last week. Given the opportunity for Byrd to hit the open market, few expected that he would spurn offers elsewhere and return to Buffalo.

It's a move that stings the Bills -- they had sufficient cap space to absorb an $8.4 million franchise tender, without needing to make a long-term commitment to Byrd -- but ultimately the pain will fade. Losing Byrd deals a blow to the Bills' secondary but also shows a measure of financial discipline from a rebuilding team that needed improvement across its roster.

Byrd's contract is worth $9 million per season, making him the highest-paid safety in the NFL on a per-year basis. His $28 million guaranteed is the second-most among all safeties, falling shy of only the $34 million guaranteed that the Kansas City Chiefs gave Eric Berry as a rookie in 2010.

The NFL is becoming an increasingly pass-heavy league, but that's a lot of money to give to any player who's not a quarterback. The Bills already have one top-paid player on their defense -- Mario Williams' $16 million per season is the most among defensive ends -- and two giant contracts would start to weigh down the Bills financially.

Still, make no mistake about it: The Bills have a significant hole to fill in their defensive backfield. They inked safety Aaron Williams to a four-year extension last week that put him among the top 10 highest-paid safeties in the NFL. At 23, Williams is far from an elite player and the Bills are banking that he will grow into that role.

Williams and Byrd were a pairing last season. It's not a one-for-one swap; the Bills will need to find another player to plug the gap. The solution probably isn't on the roster, unless the Bills want to gamble on Duke Williams, a fourth-round pick who played little on defense last season, or they try to make Da'Norris Searcy more than a role player -- which he isn't.

How the Bills go about replacing Byrd remains to be seen. His departure undoubtedly makes safety more of a priority in free agency, the draft, or both.

Without the burden of giving a massive contract to Byrd, general manager Doug Whaley now has money to spend. Instead of pouring funds into one asset, the former stockbroker has a chance to diversify his portfolio, adding more affordable players that fill more needs across the roster.

Losing Byrd might be a tough pill to swallow, but if Whaley is able to engineer a more balanced, complete roster because of it, the Bills won't have any reason to look back.
The New Orleans Saints signed former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year deal Tuesday night.

Included in their news release was a statement from Byrd:
"I first want to thank the Buffalo Bills organization and the great fans of Buffalo for their support during my time there. I think there are great things to come here in New Orleans and I’m excited to join this team,” said Byrd. “We played against the Saints this year and I saw their style of play and was impressed by it. I think I will fit well in the scheme. This is a great opportunity to join a championship organization. I look forward to meeting my new teammates and being part of a great Saints defense."
The New Orleans Saints will host former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd on a free-agent visit, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Tuesday.

Byrd is seeking a deal worth at least $9 million per season, according to ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker. However, some early signings Tuesday may not work in Byrd's favor.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that former Browns safety T.J. Ward signed a deal worth $5.5 million per season with the Denver Broncos. Along with Byrd, Ward was considered among the top safeties on the free-agent market.

The Saints had $2.1 million in cap space Monday but could restructure contracts in order to afford signing Byrd.

Meanwhile, Bills general manager Doug Whaley said Tuesday that the "lines of communication" remain open between the Bills and Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler.
With the free-agent signing period set to open Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley said talks are "status quo" with safety Jairus Byrd.

Byrd
"Lines of communication are open," Whaley told WGR 550 on Tuesday afternoon. "We still have until 4 where we're the exclusive negotiating people. But we'll see how that goes. The clock's ticking."

Byrd is seeking a deal worth at least $9 million per season, according to ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker. The three-time Pro Bowl safety has been linked to talks with the St. Louis Rams and Dolphins, among other teams, during the open negotiating period that began Saturday.

Meanwhile, Whaley said the Bills have been aggressive in trying to retain two of their other free agents: tight end Scott Chandler and kicker Dan Carpenter.

"They have some offers on the table," Whaley said. "We're just waiting to hear back from them."

Yahoo! Sports' Rand Getlin reported Tuesday that Carpenter was flying from South Florida to Buffalo.

Whaley also said the Bills have extended contract offers to defensive lineman Alex Carrington and linebacker Arthur Moats.

"We're waiting to hear back from those guys," he said. "Hopefully we hear back before 4 p.m."
Happy Monday. We've arrived at what is typically the busiest week of the NFL offseason.

Since Saturday, teams have been able to enter into talks with opposing teams' free agents. Starting Tuesday at 4 p.m., deals can become official.

Until then, let's recap what we've learned over the past few days:

1. The Bills will need to make a decision on several players who are due large roster bonuses this week. Quarterback Kevin Kolb ($1 million) and linebacker Manny Lawson ($500,000) are both due roster bonuses on Thursday. On Saturday, the Bills owe wide receiver Stevie Johnson a $1.75 million roster bonus. Last week, Bills general manager Doug Whaley addressed Kolb's situation with John Kryk of the Toronto Sun. "It's a tricky situation," Whaley told Kryk. "We're going to be very careful how we handle this, and the foremost consideration in the whole equation is him being healthy." It would be a surprise if Kolb remains with the team past this week. Lawson and Johnson are longer shots to be released but their situations still bear watching.

2. Last week, the Bills hosted linebackers Jameel McClain and Jasper Brinkley, who were both released by their former teams. Brinkley could be off the market soon, as Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo reported Sunday that the Minnesota Vikings will bring back Brinkley on a one-year deal. Meanwhile, McClain will still meet with the Vikings on Monday, reports 1500 ESPN's Darren Wolfson. We ranked linebacker as the Bills' top free-agent need and we wouldn't be surprised if the Bills made a play to sign one of the top free-agent linebackers available. Jon Beason and Karlos Dansby are among those who are hitting the open market this week.

3. ESPN.com Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker reported Monday that safety Jairus Byrd is seeking a deal that pays him at least $9 million per season. That would make Byrd the highest-paid safety in the NFL, at least in terms of average salary per season. The NFL Network reported over the weekend that the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams have expressed interest in Byrd.

4. While Tuesday is the start of the free-agent signing period, it's also the first day that teams can complete trades. At this point, don't rule out activity on that end from the Bills.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC East

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In years past, our ESPN NFL divisional bloggers would compile lists of the top free agents within their respective divisions. We're continuing that tradition this offseason, but with a twist: We asked each of our ESPN NFL Nation bloggers to rank their team's free agents, which then were compiled into a master list for each division.

With the free-agent signing period opening Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, here's our AFC East free-agent ranking:

Byrd
1. Jairus Byrd, Bills S: Ball-hawking safety had four interceptions last season and was named to his third Pro Bowl in five years.

2. Aqib Talib, Patriots CB: Matchup man-to-man cornerback was a centerpiece in the Patriots' game plans in 2013, with injuries the only real blemish on his resume.

3. Julian Edelman, Patriots WR: Coming off a career-high 105-catch season -- staying healthy for all 16 games for the first time -- the receiver is poised to cash in.

4. Austin Howard, Jets T: An ascending player who would generate significant interest if he hits the open market.

5. Paul Soliai, Dolphins DT: He is one of the top run-stuffers on the market. Soliai can fit in the middle of a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense, which adds value.

6. Scott Chandler, Bills TE: A 6-foot-7 tight end who posted career highs in receptions (53) and receiving yards (655) but was a non-factor in the red zone.

7. Randy Starks, Dolphins DT: The Dolphins used the franchise tag on Starks in 2013 but only used him as a rotational player. A change of scenery is probably best for him.

8. LeGarrette Blount, Patriots RB: The 250-pound running back was tough to bring down once he got rolling late last season; deserving of an upgraded contract.

9. Ryan Wendell, Patriots C: Undersized center has the smarts and durability that could appeal to a team looking to fill a void in the pivot, but sometimes gets overpowered.

Spikes
10. Brandon Spikes, Patriots LB: Hard-hitting linebacker is a top player against the run, but struggles at times in coverage.

11. Calvin Pace, Jets LB: Recorded a career-high 10 sacks last season, but there will be a limited market because he'll be 34.

12. Chris Clemons, Dolphins S: He's a decent safety with plenty of starting experience. Clemons is strong in run support and a sure tackler, but he struggles at times in pass coverage.

13. Nick Folk, Jets K: Designated as a franchise player.

14. Dan Carpenter, Bills K: Kicker is coming off his best season as a pro, converting 91.7 percent of his field goals, including every kick in the second quarter or later.

15. Alex Carrington, Bills DL: Versatile lineman can play tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4; started first three games in 2013 before an injury ended his season.
With the NFL free-agent negotiating period having opened at noon Saturday, it's timely to take a closer look at our ESPN NFL free-agent tracker Insider.

This year, ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian served as our "general manager" for the tracker, assigning letter grades to each player available. The grading scale is tied to a salary value: Polian believes an 'A' player should receive a contract with an annual value of at least $6 million, while a player with a 'B' should receive between $2-6 million per season.

That's when Polian's 'B-minus' grade for Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd caught our eye.

By next week, Byrd could become the highest paid safety in the NFL, as he's expected to fetch a deal worth at least $9 million on the open market. That represents a wide gap between Polian's valuation and what Byrd could actually receive, so we asked the former Bills general manager about his take on Byrd.

Polian said the salary ranges assigned to the letter grades can eventually change based on market spending, but noted that his grade of Byrd wouldn't be affected.

"He's a speed-deficient safety," Polian said. "Safeties don't get faster as the years go on."

Byrd is the third-ranked safety on Polian's list, behind Antoine Bethea (who received an 'A') and Chris Clemons (who received a 'B').
When the Buffalo Bills decided not to assign safety Jairus Byrd with the franchise tag Monday, the immediate reaction was along these lines: How could the Bills just let their three-time Pro Bowler walk?

In an interview Tuesday with the Toronto Sun's John Kryk, general manager Doug Whaley explained his thinking in the decision.

Byrd
"I think it just sets up a more amicable negotiation, because last year -- I wouldn't say it was contentious, but as a player you always want to go out and see your true value, and we restricted that," Whaley told Kryk. "So this year we said, 'For the betterment of the Buffalo Bills, and to show you more or less good faith, we're not going to use that option to restrict you from hitting the market. Let's try to go full bore, with both of us focused on trying to get a deal done.'"

The Bills have exclusive negotiating rights with Byrd until Saturday, when other NFL teams can officially start talks with Byrd. Tuesday is the first day other teams can complete a contract with Byrd, who is the top safety on the free-agent market.

If the Bills had tagged Byrd, it would have cost them $8.4 million against their salary cap. Once Byrd signed the tender (and once the 2014 league year began on March 13) the Bills could have traded Byrd. Still, Whaley didn't think the chances of a trade were strong enough to warrant tagging Byrd.

"There are a lot of moving parts to doing that. If you try to franchise him and trade him, then you've got to find somebody that's going to give you the proper compensation, and then you have to have them feeling confident enough to then sign him," Whaley said. "The best path for the Buffalo Bills was not to take that chance."

Byrd told ESPN this week that he remains open to a deal with the Bills but is "excited" to hit the open market for the first time in his career.

"He has a value (to us), and they have a value of what his camp thinks he's worth, and we're trying to meet in the middle and make it comfortable for both sides," Whaley said. "Do you hate to lose him for nothing? Yes."


It's not over yet, but we're getting there.

The Jairus Byrd era in Buffalo took another step toward ending Monday when the Bills decided not to assign the three-time Pro Bowl safety with the franchise tag.

General manager Doug Whaley said the team continues to negotiate with Byrd, who can begin talking to other teams Saturday. The earliest he can sign a free-agent deal elsewhere is Tuesday.

Byrd
Byrd is likely hoping that, after being kept in Buffalo on the franchise tag last season, he can find a more lucrative deal with another team. The Bills are likely hoping that Byrd can't find that sort of deal on the open market and reconsiders their offer.

"As they say in that movie, there's always a chance," Whaley said Monday when asked about the possibility of Byrd and the Bills agreeing to a new deal.

But at this point, the odds are against that happening. As of Saturday there were 13 NFL teams with $20 million or more in cap space, including the Bills. That doesn't mean teams will throw financial discipline out the window to add Byrd, but it increases the chances that another team offers Byrd more than the Bills are willing to.

While Byrd's market will come more into focus this weekend, the Bills may soon need to execute their backup plan at safety.

Without Byrd, Aaron Williams tops the Bills' depth chart at the position. The 2011 second-round pick struggled for two seasons as a cornerback before settling into Mike Pettine's defense as a safety last season. Williams' four interceptions matched Byrd's total, but he will now have to adjust to another new defensive scheme under Jim Schwartz.

Continued improvement from Williams would help ease the blow from losing Byrd. Still, the Bills need two starting safeties, and they may not have another on their roster.

"I have complete confidence, not only in everybody in this organization that has given us the resources and the backing but also our scouting staff," Whaley said, "that if we are unfortunate enough to lose Jairus Byrd, we found him [and] we'll be confident that we can get a replacement, if we don't already have one on campus."

Other than Williams, the Bills have four safeties under contract. Da'Norris Searcy started seven games last season but is best as a role player. If the Bills need to turn to him as a bridge to a younger player, Searcy would slide in at strong safety while Williams would drop back into a center-field role, like Byrd. It wouldn't be ideal, but they could get by.

There's also a trio of younger players: Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks and Jajuan Harley. Of the three, only Williams has experience playing on defense in the NFL, and he was limited to 2.8 percent of snaps as a rookie last season. Williams is a fourth-round pick, but he would still need to make a major jump to replace Byrd next season.

If the Bills can't find a replacement on campus, where would they look next? Here are our initial thoughts:

Free agency: Even outside of Byrd, the free-agent class at safety is strong. Cleveland's T.J. Ward, Miami's Chris Clemons, New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins and San Francisco's Donte Whitner are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Ward is the best of the group but may command a deal that rivals Byrd's. Ultimately, the Bills may want to develop their homegrown replacement instead of opening their wallets on the free-agent market.

The draft: The draft provides fewer solid options. Safety is considered to have weaker depth than most positions this May, with Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor at the top of the board. The Bills wouldn't consider either at ninth overall and may have to hope they're still on the board early in the second round.

Trade market: Dipping into the trade market would be the least likely scenario but can't be counted out. Their best bet would be to find a younger player who is undervalued in a new defensive scheme and try him in a different system.

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