Bills take wrong tack with Byrd - The Buffalo News
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Bills take wrong tack with Byrd

Last Saturday night, veteran Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller suffered three torn knee ligaments on a hit by D.J. Swearinger of the Texans. Keller is out for the season. There’s speculation that his NFL career might be over.

Keller has virtually no chance of landing the lucrative, long-term contract he was seeking when he decided to play this year on a one-year deal. Keller spent his first five years with the Jets. But when he resisted the franchise tag last spring, the Jets let him walk as a free agent.

He signed with Miami for one year at $4.5 million. Keller, who had been a productive receiver in his first four seasons with an inconsistent Jets offense, figured he could parlay a good season into a huge new contract. He took a gamble. He lost big.

I’m sure the lesson wasn’t lost on Jairus Byrd. The Bills’ Pro Bowl free safety will be taking the same gamble this season. Byrd, who ended a lengthy holdout by signing his $6.9 million franchise tender on Tuesday, will play out the season and hope to cash in as a free agent next spring.

Byrd is gambling that he won’t wind up like Keller; or like former Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes, who blew out his Achilles while playing on a $10.28 million franchise tender last year; or Redskins tight end Fred Davis, who also tore his Achilles while wearing the franchise tag in 2012.

You have to respect NFL players who take a financial stand. They generally get one chance at a free-agent contract bonanza. But it’s a risky proposition, one that Byrd was willing to take.

Keller was under contract when he went down. Byrd didn’t want to take a chance in a meaningless preseason game. It’s hard to blame him. With NFL players getting injured at an alarming rate, why go through training camp and risk injury for a team that won’t give him the long-term deal he feels he deserves?

It’s fashionable to trash Byrd for holding out, but he was well within his rights. He also had very little leverage in the long term. So he signed with the Bills to ensure that he would not miss any regular-season game checks.

The Bills were within their rights, too, of course. The franchise tag was created to help teams retain the occasional free agent. But playing hardball with Byrd seems petty and shortsighted, two qualities this franchise has demonstrated in abundance over the years.

Going back to 2002, Byrd is the only Buffalo draft choice voted to the Pro Bowl at his position. You would think the organization would want to celebrate that fact, wave it aloft for their fans as evidence that, yes, we actually get the draft right once in awhile!

Instead, they had to squeeze the guy. I wasn’t privy to the negotiations, but I imagine Byrd and his agent, Eugene Parker, were looking for something in the area of five years, $42.5 million – or slightly more than what former Niners safety Dashon Goldson got from the Bucs early this year.

You can call Byrd selfish, or trot out the tired bromide that no one is worth that sort of money. Byrd is one of the elite safeties in the game.

For once, the Bills could have bit the bullet and paid the going rate for one of the very finest players at the position.

When they didn’t pay Andy Levitre last spring, I went along with it. Guards are replaceable (although events in camp are proving just the opposite). I didn’t crush them when they let Jason Peters and Nate Clements walk. But at some point, shouldn’t they have to pay one of their own free agents top money at the position?

It’s not as if they’re broke. The Bills are very profitable (insert your Ralph Wilson/Jeff Littman comment here). They have plenty of cash to spend. They’ve saved money on quarterbacks for years. They have a young roster and a relatively cheap young coaching staff.

Of course, it’s more convenient to sell the public on what’s new and shiny and full of promise. Fans in this town are going ga-ga over a quarterback, wide receivers and a middle linebacker who have never played a down with the “real bullets” flying. That’s fine. But how about a long-term investment in a proven commodity, a playmaker who has done it when it mattered?

There’s a lot of happy talk about the Bills’ defense and how it’s going to be a surprise this season. I’d be more excited if Byrd had signed a five-year contract extension and was assured of being the anchor of that defense for years to come.

Isn’t that how you sell legitimate hope, by developing your draft picks into stars and keeping them around? Wouldn’t it be comforting to know that Byrd would be here two or three years from now, when this young squad might actually be ready to make a playoff run?

Now we’ll get a full season with the Pro Bowl free safety worrying about getting hurt. Byrd is a competitor, a solid citizen. But do you suppose he’ll be a tad less willing to stick his head in there against some 235-pound locomotive running back, knowing how much he stands to lose if he suffers a serious injury while playing on a franchise tag?

Byrd is back, and he’ll say all the right things. But he can’t be happy, and it’s hard to imagine him being here next year. The record shows, if you franchise a guy, he generally winds up playing somewhere else.

The Bills are willing to take the risk. Do you think any of these hot rookies are watching and wondering if it’ll be them in four years?


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