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Bills refuse to tag S Jairus Byrd, who may become NFL's top free agent

Jairus Byrd could be hitting the open market at the perfect time. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)Jairus Byrd could be hitting the open market at the perfect time. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Buffalo Bills have been trying to negotiate a new long-term contract with safety Jairus Byrd for over a year now, and the drama continued as the Monday deadline for teams to place the franchise tags on their players passed. As that deadline approached, Bills general manager Doug Whaley released the following statement:

“We have negotiated with representation for Jairus Byrd for more than a year, but have yet to reach an agreement on a contract extension.  We remain open to getting a deal done with Jairus, but we have chosen not to use the franchise tag on any of our impending unrestricted free agents.”

If the Bills and Byrd are unable to come to terms by the opening of free agency on Mar. 11, Byrd will hit the open market -- and given the way the NFL works these days, he might be the most prized free agent. As the league turns more and more to the passing game as the primary schematic conceit, safeties who can cover the back with supreme range and coverage ability are tremendously important -- and in tremendously short supply. And there's no doubt that Byrd is one of the best.

In 2013, per Pro Football Focus' game charting, Byrd was targeted 22 times on 359 passing snaps played. He gave up a ridiculously low 83 total yards (51 after the catch) in just 11 receptions, which is especially impressive for a player who defends the deep half a great deal of the time. Byrd gave up just one touchdown and intercepted four passes. No qualifying safety -- including those who play in the box most of the time -- gave up fewer total yards. In 2012, Byrd was targeted 21 times in 561 passing snaps, allowing 16 receptions for 156 yards (76 of those after the catch), no touchdowns, and five picks.

So, there's an argument to be made that from a pure pass defense perspective, Byrd has been the NFL's most dominant in total over the last two years. And the Bills, who go into the 2014 league year with $25.667 million in cap space, may still be able to extend Byrd despite this hard line.

So, there's an argument to be made that from a pure pass defense perspective, Byrd has been the NFL's most dominant in total over the last two years. And the Bills, who go into the 2014 league year with $25.667 million in cap space, may still be able to extend Byrd despite this hard line. According to multiple reports over the last few months, Whaley and his staff have considered every possible option, including franchising Byrd and then trading him. But now, they'll either have to come to a deal or let Byrd walk.

The Bills did franchise Byrd for the 2013 season after a rookie contract ran out that paid him $615,000 in base salary the year before. Based on the franchise value for the position. Buffalo had to guarantee $6.916 million with that tag.

Based on 2014 cap spending at the position, Troy Polamalu of the Steelers has the most lucrative  contract among all NFL safeties -- as this part of the four-year, $36.5 million contract extension he signed in September, 2011, Polamalu is on the books for $10,887 million in 2014 -- with an $8.25 million base salary and a $2,637,500 prorated bonus. Tampa Bay's Dashon Goldson, who signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract as a free agent last March, may be more in line with what the 2009 second-round pick out of Oregon may want for himself.

"I have complete confidence, not only in everybody in this organization that has given us the resources and the backing, but also our scouting staff, that if we are unfortunate enough to lose Jairus Byrd, we found him [and] we'll be confident that we can get a replacement, if we don't already have one on campus," Whaley said Monday.

As it always is with elite players, that's easier said than done.

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