UNDER PRESSURE: Saints Send Byrd a Not-So-Subtle Message

The 2016 Saints regular season will also be Year 3 of starting free safety Jairus Byrd’s huge six year contract that Mickey Loomis and the Saints gave him on March 11th, 2014.

That contract of course was for $56 million dollars, $28 million of it (as Saints fans will quickly remind you) which is guaranteed.

However, with the selection of All-American and Ohio State safety Vonn Bell — whom the Saints made a Day 2 trade with the New England Patriots to move up to get — the Saints appear to have sent Byrd a not-so-subtle message: it’s time you give us some return on our investment.

Byrd’s salary for 2016 is essentially guaranteed now, since he will get (or already has gotten) 6 million of his $7.5 million base salary after the Saints let him remain on the roster past a 3 p.m. deadline back on February 10th.

As New Orleans Advocate Saints beat writer Nick Underhill noted after that deadline had passed, Byrd carries a $11.4 million cap number and it would actually cost the Saints more to release him than to keep him on the roster.

Sep 21, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints safety Jairus Byrd (31) against the Minnesota Vikings in a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

But as Underhill also adds, the Saints could part ways with Byrd and designate him a post-June 1 release. If this happens, he could be released from the roster and only count $3.4 million against the cap in 2016.

The “catch” if you will however, is that it would create a “dead money” situation for the Saints in 2017.

Now while it’s always a possibility that the Saints would go ahead and release Byrd sometime before the season anyway, it would seem more likely that Byrd will stick around at least for 2016; since if you’re the Saints, it doesn’t make sense to cut him now after you could have just saved yourselves $6 million by cutting him back in early February.

And while Byrd has been a definite disappointment and it can be said that the Saints haven’t gotten a whole hell of a lot in return on their $54 million dollar investment in 2014 Free Agency, it’s likely that the Saints are sticking with Byrd at the very least for one more time, in the hopes that he will live up to the hype that he brought with him from Buffalo.

That and also the fact that perhaps the Saints organization just doesn’t want to come out publicly and ADMIT that they made a mistake by giving Byrd that big contract in hindsight. But as they say, “it is what it is”.

The bottom line is that now Byrd has a lot to prove in 2016, to the fans, to the Saints organization, and even to himself — that he still is one of the premier safeties in the National Football League and is worth EVERY penny of the $54 million dollar contract that the Saints gave him over two years ago.

Pressure — pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure — that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

Queen and David Bowie – 1981

So what happened to Byrd between the time that the Saints signed him and the time that we’re at now, that has put Byrd in his current predicament?

Clearly his health derailed him from the outset, and any hope that he had of getting off on the proverbial right foot was quickly quashed.

Not long after the ink had dried on Byrd’s brand new contract, it was revealed in May of 2014 that he had an issue with a disc in his back, and that he would require “minor” surgery to correct the problem.

He was placed on the PUP list for Training camp and didn’t come off of it until the last week in July, but didn’t see his first set of full contact drills until the preseason in mid-August.

Byrd’s regular season debut in the 2014 season opener at Atlanta against the Falcons was less than spectacular, although and while he did force a fumble in that game — which as it turned out ended up being the only highlight of his entire 2014 season.

Sep 7, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) fumbles the ball after a hit by New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) in the first half of their game at the Georgia Dome. The Saints recovered the ball in the end zone. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The fierce “ball hawk” that the Saints signed was nowhere to be found; as he was forced into double-duty playing on the field as well as trying to babysit members of the young Saints secondary, who appeared lost most of the time.

After only four games, Byrd tore his lateral meniscus during a Week #5 practice and was placed on injured reserve, ending his inaugural 2014 campaign in New Orleans.

When the Saints reconvened in March 2015, Saints head coach Sean Payton declared Byrd only a few weeks away from the official start of the 2015 off-season conditioning program, as “a full go” for OTA’s and mini-camp.

Byrd looked fine in OTA’s and min-camp, and the talk was of how improved the Saints would be with a healthy Byrd along with the addition of free-agent CB Brandon Browner

But then things took a strange and unexpected turn.

The Saints stunned everyone with the news that Byrd would start the 2015 Training Camp yet again on the PUP list, just as he had in 2014.

He made a “cameo” appearance during the start of the Black and Gold Scrimmage three weeks later, doing some light jogging off to the side — but looked as if he were trying to shield himself from the media, while wearing a hoodie and purposely trying to avoid having his photo taken.

While it’s understandable that the Saints wanted to take every precaution with their multi-million dollar investment (meniscus injuries are said to take longer to heal, and easily can be re-injured if not allowed to properly be rehabbed), Saints fans were a bit upset and felt as if they were being kept in the dark about Byrd’s status.

A large portion of fans declared (and still do) the Byrd signing a “bust”, until he finally returned to the field in a Week #4 win at home in the Superdome against the Dallas Cowboys.

Though Byrd was able to remain healthy for the remainder of last season, his production was horribly lacking, especially that of a player who is earning approximately $9 million per season.

Byrd only managed one interception in 2015, which came in a 24-6 Week that came in a loss at Houston against the Texans. Additionally, he tallied a sack in blow-out loss to the Redskins at Washington, and forced one fumble during a game where defense was optional, in a 52-49 shoot-out win at home against the New York Giants.

And that was it.

Oct 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs for a touchdown past New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Not a memorable year for the former Pro Bowler, and with Rafael Bush going on IR early in the season, Byrd didn’t exactly get a lot of help to begin with.

With the additional struggles of Brandon Browner — who morphed into Public Enemy #1 among Saints fans — the scrutiny of Byrd was further intensified, especially when it seemed that time and tie again the two teammates had a lot of trouble with simply communicating with each other.

There was the notable example of the poorly thrown pass by Titans rookie QB Marcus Mariota during a Week #10 loss at home to Tennessee; that both men tried to intercept at the same time — only to tip it into the hands of a waiting Titans TE Delanie Walker, who then took it all the way in for a score in a play eerily reminiscent of the infamous “Big Ben” play in a 1978 home loss to the Falcons.

Then there was the crème de la crème: Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles’ pass from his own 10-yard line to WR Allen Robinson, who caught the ball in stride and then turned on the jets, burning Browner down the field for a 90-yard score.

The chorus of boos rained down upon Browner — a moment in time that possibly sealed his fate in the minds of Saints brass, as evidenced by his release after only one season; prior to this year’s Free Agency signing period.

Dec 27, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson (15) catches a 90-yard touchdown pass while defended by New Orleans Saints cornerback Brandon Browner (39) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

However, replays would reveal that Byrd had blown the coverage assignment on the play, and it was a mishap on Byrd’s part that only fueled the criticism by fans of the Saints’ $56 million dollar investment.

Which of course takes us to the recent events of the NFL Draft, and the Saints’ selection of Vonn Bell.

Not surprisingly, it would seem that the Saints see a lot of the same attributes in Bell, that they though they were already getting with Byrd two years ago.

As our Editor and Columnist Barry Hirstius put it the other day: “Vonn Bell was destined to become a starter for the Saints as a rookie, from the very moment the Saints made the move to trade with the New England Patriots to get him.”

Whether the Saints themselves actually see it that way is yet to be determined, but one thing that can be surmised from the selection of Bell is that the Saints are sending Byrd a not-so-subtle meassage:

We want a return on our investment.

Oct 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It would appear that Jairus Byrd is going to under a tremendous amount of pressure to finally live up to the lofty expectations that the Saints and their fans had for him for over two years now.

Live up to them —  or else……………