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Takeaways from Last Week – July 8

Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE

Jairus Byrd’s contract situation is worth keeping an eye on

Once again, another week goes by without not much on the NFL or Atlanta Falcons radar. But nonetheless, I will try to give you a thousand words worth considering.

Word came over the weekend that the NFL is considering the possibility that they will not allow collegiate players that were ruled academically ineligible to participate at the annual Scouting Combine.

This seemingly is in response to some of the criticism that the league has received in light of the Aaron Hernandez arrest when it comes to player maturity issues. I’m not going to comment specifically on the pluses and/or minuses of the league’s consideration, as others have already and I don’t have much to add that will be different.

However, the angle I would like to tackle is the angle of cynicism. This move by the league really ruffles my feathers. This illustrates one of the beefs I have with Roger Goodell and the National Football League, in that they are really just a giant corporation.

Understandably so, as they are a multi-billion dollar industry. This is just another example of the league functioning like one. Big corporations like them will often do superficial things like this to potentially address areas where they are criticized. The league probably has no intent to do this, as others have explained it won’t really do anything. But it is good pub in the sense that it shows the public that the league “cares” about this issue. They really don’t, but they can’t just sit and do nothing. So they leak that they are considering this, floating it out there to see how people react, and so no one can criticize them for apathy.

It’s similar to the whole player safety issue. The league doesn’t really care about player safety in my humble opinion. They care more about liability, as the potential lawsuit coming in terms of concussion history could be disastrous for the league’s bottom line.

As I’ve said before if the league was really vested in making this game as safe as possible, then they would be looking into shrinking the size of the regular season rather than expanding it. The league took steps to limit cut blocking this year, but why are any players allowed to block anybody below the waist? If you really cared about player safety, you would put as much emphasis on protecting all players, and not just their heads but their knees and legs as well. Offensive skill position players are considered defenseless, but why not defenders when it comes to 300-pound linemen diving at their legs? How can you really protect yourself from that?

***

Next Monday represents the deadline for which Franchise players need to sign long-term deals. Obviously the Falcons don’t have any tagged free agents that will need to be signed in the next seven days, although one could consider Matt Ryan to be in a similar situation. Although for him, his deadline really is July 24 rather than July 15.

But there are several free agents around the league that are up against the wall, looking for long-term deals. One of them is Buffalo Bills’ safety Jairus Byrd.

What is interesting to me with Byrd is the fact that this week there has been some hints of a possible trade out of Buffalo. Both sides have expressed earlier this summer that they have no intention of moving Byrd out of Buffalo, but it’s interesting that a writer for the Bills official site isn’t “willing to rule it out.” Shades of Jason Peters?

Similar to Thomas DeCoud, Byrd is an undersized safety that is not a great run defender, but more than makes up for it with his ball skills and playmaking instincts in coverage. He’s created 28 turnovers in his four-year career (18 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles), which is the most of any true safety in the league in that span (Charles Woodson actually paces the league with 30 combined turnovers, but obviously spent most of the past four years playing cornerback).

Byrd represents the “new breed” of safeties that I think are going to become the more preeminent players moving forward at the position. Former greats like Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, and Adrian Wilson are at or near the ends of their respective careers, and it will be up for a new generation of safeties to become the elite players in the league. Byrd is among them, alongside players like Eric Weddle, Eric Berry, and Earl Thomas. William Moore is probably a tier down from those guys, and DeCoud might be another tier down from him.

But this new breed of safeties I believe are going to often be big corners that are converted to safety in the NFL. Byrd isn’t the first of this type of player to dot the league. Corey Chavous is a prominent example from yesteryear, and players like Woodson and Rod Woodson were able to successfully transition from corner to safety late in their careers. But I think because of the way offenses are going, it’s going to put a bigger emphasis on cover skills from your safeties. The best pass defenses will be able to put their safeties on an island in single coverage against quality wideouts and tight ends. Byrd may not have elite man cover skills, but he was a productive corner at Oregon and is better there than most safeties in the league. I look at a player like Nick Collins, who’s ability to match up in man coverage was a key reason why the 2010 Green Bay Packers pass defense was the best in the league. Players like Devin McCourty, Glover Quin, Malcolm Jenkins, and Danieal Manning are more examples of this type of player currently.

If the Bills can’t get a deal done with Byrd in the next week, then it seems likely that he’ll hit the open market next off-season and be in position to make the premium coin he’s looking for currently. The Bills have already made moves to add insurance at the position by moving cornerback Aaron Williams to the spot, and drafting a pair of safeties this past April.

Should the Falcons be interested in trading for Byrd now? No. But if Byrd does trickle to the open market next March, then I think there should be definite interest. While similar players, Byrd is a more consistent and significantly better than DeCoud.

Byrd is likely seeking a contract similar to what DaShon Goldson got from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past off-season, which was a five-year deal worth $41.25 million with $18 million guaranteed (per SpotRac). That dwarfs the five-year, $17.5 million deal that DeCoud signed back in March of 2012, worth a maximum of $6.25 million in guaranteed money.

I’ve discussed before the possibility that DeCoud is not long for Atlanta. Next year, the Falcons are going to have to make a decision at the start of the offseason on whether to keep him or not. If they opt to keep him, $2.25 million of his $4.2 million base salary will become fully guaranteed. Now, if DeCoud has another strong season as he did in 2012, then that decision likely will be to keep him. But if not, and a player like Byrd is available in free agency, then it’ll be tempting for the Falcons to pursue the latter.

DeCoud’s contract is structured so that he will count $13 million over the next three seasons (2014-16) in terms of cap space. If he earns the $3.5 million in incentives that puts it at $16.5 million. Goldson will count $26 million over the first three years of his contract against the Bucs’ cap. If Byrd was to get a similar deal, that would be a sizable increase to the Falcons cap load over the next three years. But at the same time, it will also be a sizable improvement to the team’s secondary. DeCoud is a good player, but his ceiling isn’t nearly as high as Byrd’s. Byrd is already an elite safety and is 19 months younger than DeCoud.

One of the complaints that I’ve had for the Falcons over recent years is their willingness to “settle” on players. This is one of the reasons why I was critical of the Sam Baker contract, as well as the Justin Blalock contract. The Falcons are essentially overpaying for middling talent. Combined, both players received $79.5 million contracts with $34.5 million guaranteed. Compared to Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl, who I contend are better players, received a combined $41 million with $15.5 million from the Falcons and Rams, respectively. Both Baker and Blalock have been and likely always will be just above average players. DeCoud is in the same boat. You can’t put together a roster full of greats, but if you have the capacity to replace a 6 (on a hypothetical 10-point scale) with a 9, then it’s worth it even if it means paying twice as much money. Especially when you consider that one of the biggest problems of the Falcons defense is their lack of top-end playmakers. That upper echelon of players is what elevates a decent defense to a top one. And if the Falcons want to improve their chances of winning in January moving forward, upgrading the defense is important. Because as it stands right now, the Falcons defense hasn’t shown it’s good enough to win on the road. By being a team that requires home-field advantage in order to win in January ostensibly reduces the Falcons playoff chances by at least half.

Obviously, the possibility of getting a player like Byrd at this point is a long way off, and probably an unlikelihood for the Falcons. But I just mean it to illustrate the point that the Falcons need to constantly be on the lookout for ways to get better.

***

Speaking of which in other Bills-related news, linebacker Nick Barnett still is an unsigned free agent. Barnett would probably represent an upgrade over Akeem Dent at linebacker, at least assuming both players remain at their 2012 levels.

I’ve talked about the fact that one of the key areas where Dent needs to improve is in diagnosing plays. That is not an area where Barnett struggles at all. He can’t move like he once did, but he still is a super-smart and instinctive run defender that is good coming downhill in the box.

But as I discussed with the possibility of signing Eric Winston, the Falcons have a vested interest in developing the young guy, so the chances the Falcons would explore signing Barnett are at best slim. Essentially, Barnett could slide into Mike Peterson’s vacated spot as veteran leader and still capable two-down player. Barnett was an every down player for the Bills last year, and was functional because of his instincts allowed him to be in position even if his speed and hips weren’t quite up to par. But eventually that will get exposed, and it’s not a good idea to put him in situations where he’ll be asked to cover players like Darren Sproles out of the backfield.

If Barnett was a bit sprier, then signing him would be a no-brainer. He would then upgrade the regular defense, and also allow Dent to get more reps on special teams, thus upgrading that unit either. But the Falcons don’t really need to go out and sign veteran linebackers, particularly ones that could be liabilities in coverage. It’s one of the reasons why the team’s decision not to try and draft a coverage-oriented linebacker this past April was a bit surprising. Unless Dent can step up and show that he’s not just functional, but an actual asset in coverage this year, it’s going to be a need going into next year.

As such, Barnett is just a short-term fix, and potentially one that may not be necessary if Dent makes the necessary strides from the neck up. Barnett has eight years of experience on Dent, so it’s not as if the young guy is going to reach his level in 2013. But he is certainly in a position to take the first big steps in that direction this year.

If the Falcons are going to address their linebacker depth, they stand probably a better shot waiting until cuts begin in August and targeting someone that can play multiple positions and be an upgrade in coverage, but also potentially help out on special teams. Barnett, nor any of the current crop of free agent linebackers fit that bill. The possibility exists that such a player could be had at the end of August.

I think the odds are pretty good that we’ll see the Falcons address one of their weaknesses at the end of camp, with the smart money being at quarterback, linebacker, defensive tackle, or safety in terms of depth. The Falcons have question marks at all four positions right now, and the odds aren’t great that all will be solved by the time September rolls around. It’s going to be one of the things to watch as training camp and the preseason unfold in the coming weeks.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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