ORLANDO, Fla. — When he lost his marquee safety to his old boss’ team in free agency, Bills coach Doug Marrone had only one thing to say to the Saints about their new acquisition Jairus Byrd.
“You’re going to love him in the locker room; you’re going to love him in the field; he’ll do everything he can,” said Marrone, the offensive coordinator for Saints coach Sean Payton’s first three seasons in New Orleans. “You’re going to love him in the community. There’s not a bad thing to say about Jairus Byrd.”
Speaking to reporters at the NFL’s annual owners meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes hotel on Tuesday morning, Marrone made it clear that it pained him to be unable to retain Byrd, a safety whose 22 interceptions since entering the league as Buffalo’s second-round draft pick in 2009 are the most among players at his position.
The Bills fashioned what Marrone considered to be “a great offer” for Byrd, who played under a one-year franchise tag in 2013 but hit unrestricted free agency on March 11. However, soon after the free agency signing period began, Byrd signed a six-year, $54 million deal with $28 million guaranteed — the most lucrative contract for a safety in NFL history.
“Obviously, there was a better offer out there, and Jairus took it,” Marrone said.
Marrone also said: “I don’t blame (him). I really don’t. … I would like to keep him, but at the end of the day, it’s his decision, and a lot of it is based on the finances.”
The Saints heaped big money at Byrd in hopes that he’d ameliorate the one flaw on a defense that finished ranked fourth in the NFL in 2013 — it tallied the fourth-fewest takeaways (19). He’ll be joining a position group that includes second-year player Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush, heading into his third season in New Orleans.
It sounded on Tuesday like Marrone believed the Saints made a good bet with Byrd.
“His play speaks for itself. He’s a proven playmaker in this league, and he’ll be very, very successful,” Marrone said. “When you watch him play, … he hustles his butt off, and he puts himself in position to make those (takeaway) plays, and that’s a credit to him.”
For Marrone, being outbid for the services of a player the caliber of Byrd’s was far from ideal. But the outcome is one he can stomach, given that Byrd ended up with a coaching staff with which Marrone is quite familiar and one that is not in the same conference as the Bills.
“I like Jairus Byrd — I want to see Jairus Byrd be successful,” Marrone said. “I’m happy he went to a place where I know those people, and they’re good people.”
Meanwhile, according to Raiders coach Dennis Allen, another of Payton’s former assistants, Byrd’s attributes shouldn’t detract from those of two outgoing safeties who preceded him on the Saints: Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.
Jenkins hit the open market on March 11 and quickly signed with Philadelphia. Harper was released in February and inked a deal with Carolina on March 18.
In his five years with the Saints, Jenkins picked off just five passes, and Harper had only seven interceptions in his eight seasons with New Orleans.
But they were both good enough to help the Saints win their only NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl trophy at the end of the 2009 season; they were part of playoff runs in 2010, 2011 and 2012; and they have plenty to offer their new teams, said Allen, who was in New Orleans from 2006 to 2010 and spent the last three of those campaigns in charge of the secondary.
“I think both of those guys are outstanding players, and both of them are outstanding individuals,” Allen, who watched Harper and Jenkins get drafted by New Orleans, said. “Both of them have a lot of qualities that you look for in a football player — they love football, they come to work everyday, and they were team players. … I think the world of both of them.”
Yet, there’s admittedly no understating how valuable it is to introduce a player like Byrd to any defense.
“You can never put too much emphasis on turnovers,” Allen said. “The only reason you go out on the field on defense is to get the ball back for the offense. That’s the only reason you take the field.”