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Posted: Wednesday, 10 July 2013 2:31PM

Is Byrd worth it for the Bills?



(WGR 550) -- The talk of the town in regards to the Buffalo Bills this week all revolves around franchised safety Jairus Byrd and what resolution, if any, will come of it by next week. The two sides have until Monday, July 15 at 4 pm to get a long-term contract extension signed, sealed and delivered to league offices.

Based on the latest news and trends, it doesn't appear to be all that likely that Byrd and the Bills reach a conclusion by the beginning of next week. The lingering question, however, is whether or not the free safety is worth the type of money that he is likely asking for.

Using advanced statistics, on the field scouting and some of the top salaries in the league, one can start to figure out if Jairus Byrd has a case to be one of the highest paid at his position in the league.

Top Salaries

Before going through anything else, you have to first identify the top current salaries throughout the National Football League at Byrd's position. Looking at it three different ways (with the help of Spotrac.com, a database for contracts), there are 11 players that appear within the league's top ten salaries.

If you look at it from their 2013 salary cap hit, their 2013 base salaries, or their average salaries, the common names are Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, Kansas City's Eric Berry, Tampa Bay's Dashon Goldson, San Diego's Eric Weddle, the New York Giants' Antrel Rolle, Tennessee's Michael Griffin, Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea, Oakland's Tyvon Branch, Indianapolis' LaRon Landry, Houston's Danieal Manning and San Francisco's Donte Whitner.

Byrd, by way of his franchise tag that will be worth $6.916 million if and when it's signed, is among the top seven in all three categories. So how does he stack up against the Polamalu's, Goldson's and Weddle's of the NFL?

Advanced Stats

What makes figuring out a defensive player's worth so incredibly hard to do is because the accepted statistics rarely paint the complete picture as to what an individual brings to the table. It's especially important to complement those statistics with a new way of breaking down players with more situationally specific statistics.

Byrd had a modest 76 tackles which placed him 33rd among safeties in 2012, but also chipped in five interceptions (third among safeties) and four forced fumbles (tied for the most in 2012 among safeties). It's likely the player and his agent, Eugene Parker, are hammering down on those last two statistics to try and bill him as a playmaking safety.

But what do the advanced stats say?

Using a tremendous tool for trying to know the inns and outs of players throughout the league, AdvancedNFLStats.com devised two barometers of a player's excellence or failures. They use 'Win Probability Added' (WPA) and 'Expected Points Added per Game' (EPA/G).

To explain them succinctly, WPA for an individual player measures how much a play that player was directly involved in impacts the outcome of the game. EPA/G instead measures the player's impact on the score of the game with plays that they were involved.

There is much more to it than that so if you have some time, reading the AdvancedNFLStats.com glossary is highly encouraged.

Among the top 12 safeties in the league and how they rank, Byrd (1.49) had the highest WPA of any of them in 2012. He's followed by Rolle (1.45), Weddle (1.41), Manning (1.36), Griffin (0.97), Goldson (0.89), Landry (0.88), Berry (0.85), Bethea (0.80), Whitner (0.65), Branch (0.62) and Polamalu (0.37)

As for EPA/G is concerned, Byrd (2.88) was the second highest among the top 12, ranking only behind New York's Antrel Rolle (3.23). As far as 2012 was concerned through advanced statistics, there weren't many better in the league than Byrd.

However, one year does not always give the full story. Last season provided a significant jump in both WPA and EPA/G for Byrd as opposed to his previous two seasons. Was 2012 an anomaly, or the culmination of Byrd's hard work through the first three years in the league?

Really, that's another factor that makes contracts so difficult because much of it is projection. Will the player that is looking for a boatload of money actually live up to it? If Byrd does what he did in 2012 from an advanced stats perspective for most years of a lucrative long-term deal, the Bills would likely have no problem with paying him $8 to $9 million per season.

The one thing you do look for though is trends. Taking the last three seasons of the top 12's WPA and EPA/G, Byrd still ranks rather favorably. He is fifth of those 12 names in WPA over three seasons (1.09), and sixth in EPA/G (2.36).

Play on the field

Even if you are one that really looks in to advanced stats and how players perform through them, it still can't fully replace scouting and knowing the game inside and out. With football especially, there are too many instances where a player can luck in to a good season. In the grand scheme of things, sixteen games is such a small sample size so you really have to possess a finite sense of a player's strengths and weaknesses on the field.

When it comes to Byrd, his biggest strength without question is his overall instincts of knowing where to be and when to be there. His interceptions do not come by chance, they are a product of natural instincts in being around the game his whole life, along with hard work and preparation on a weekly basis.

Rarely do you see Byrd bite hard on a play action fake, which is an overall epidemic if you watch the past two years of Bills games. He's also turned himself in to a complete player, improving drastically in his overall tackling ability which helped him to as many forced fumbles as he had in 2012.

However, his instincts compensate for where genetics left him short. He is not the biggest, fastest or strongest player at his position. That leaves him having to overcome these certain characteristics where some of his safety brethren don't have to work as hard.

The question surrounding that is obvious. Byrd is turning 27 in the middle of this season. How much longer can his instincts be able to remove his size and speed from being a problem? Normal aging rules indicates that the older a person gets, the slower a person gets.

All things must be considered when it comes to paying a player as much as Byrd likely wants.

Deconstructing myths

There are a couple of lines of thinking that really don't make sense when it comes to deciding on whether or not to give a player a lucrative contract. One is from a team-based perspective, and the other of the positional variety.

The first: "How good could Byrd really be if the defense was as bad as they were?"

That could be one of the most convenient lines of thinking that do not present much understanding as to how the game is played. As we all know, a defense takes 11 pieces to run as a cohesive unit in an offensive-friendly NFL.

In 2012, Byrd was one of the direct reasons that the Bills won three of their six games. Wins against Arizona, Jacksonville and Miami all would have been much more in doubt had it not been for a big turnover made by the free safety. A forced fumble at the end of the first half in Indianapolis that was erroneously overlooked could have dramatically impacted that game, and even early on in their first meeting with New England, Byrd's pair of forced fumbles helped them jump out to a lead.

When an individual has that type of an impact on 25-percent of your games, that's grounds for a dominant player on defense. It's on the front office and coaching staff to cultivate the rest of the talent on defense to not only complement that individual but to put him in even more advantageous situations because of his teammates.

Don't hate the player, hate the construction of the team in that respect.

The second: "You don't overpay for safeties."

Sure, one can make a case that this logic should be observed ten years ago when the adage "run and stop the run" was prevalent in the NFL. However, that is not how today's league is constructed. As written previously, it's a changed league the provides so many opportunities for passing attacks to dominate a game that you need capable players in the defensive secondary to keep quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends at bay.

That's why safeties are reaching a high level of importance in the NFL. If a team has a player that offenses come to fear in the secondary, that inhibits what they do not only on game day, but in preparations and trying to overcompensate for that player.

If a team has merely average play from their safeties they should not overspend to keep those individual players. However, if a team has a top five talent that can affect an offense's passing game, then they need to do everything in their power to keep that player.

Conclusion

With all things considered including salaries, trends of advanced statistics, scouting and projection, the Bills shouldn't mess around with Jairus Byrd. After having three different coordinators throughout his first four seasons, imagine how far along he would be if there was some actual continuity at One Bills Drive.

The defense under Mike Pettine calls for safeties to be able to help the team when they're vulnerable from sending as many pass rushers as the Bills likely will. When it comes to Byrd, replacing an elite level safety with a player just switching to the position for the first time in his life (Aaron Williams) is a recipe for disaster.

At the very least, the Bills should work out a one-year contract to get Byrd in to camp on time as to be ready for the season with a new defense. They might be best served, however, to sign Byrd to a lucrative four or five year backloaded contract that they can get off the books after the third season if his play dips.

When you find an elite level player at a position that is trending up in the NFL, teams should not let that slip away unless a suitable understudy is ready to step in. The Bills clearly do not have that, and while fourth-round pick Duke Williams or the recently converted Aaron Williams could become a solid starter down the line, it's tough to top 'elite' on a defense that requires excellent play and instincts from their safeties.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
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