With free agency looming, it's entirely possible that the Buffalo Bills have decided to change the face of their safety rotation -- and quite drastically at that.
General manager Doug Whaley announced Monday that the Bills would not place the franchise tag on free safety Jairus Byrd for the second straight season, meaning that if the player and the team can't come to an agreement by Monday, March 11, Byrd might be the most highly-prized player on the open market.
And on Wednesday, the Bills announced that they had signed strong safety Aaron Williams to a four-year, $26 million contract extension with $14.625 million guaranteed and a $6.5 million signing bonus. It's not automatic that Williams' new deal precludes Buffalo from getting Byrd back in the fold as well, but the Bills may want to see how Williams can perform in Byrd's old center-field role.
“Aaron Williams is a versatile player who has grown into a key playmaker for our defense in recent years,” Whaley said in a statement. “He had an extremely productive season for our defense in 2013. Aaron is the type of young, core player we targeted early in the process to retain for years to come, and this will be our philosophy moving forward. By building on his improved play in 2013, we expect Aaron to continue to grow into a key contributor for the Bills organization.”
Selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, Williams played left and right cornerback in his first two NFL seasons and switched to strong safety for 12 of a possible 14 games (cornerback in Weeks 4 and 5) last year before he was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 27. In 2013, Williams picked off four passes, had 11 passes defensed, amassed 82 total tackles and allowed two touchdowns in coverage. He also graded out as Pro Football Focus' 13th-best safety against the run.
"Moving to safety wasn’t a huge change," Williams recalled during his press conference Wednesday. "The only change you have is just more responsibility of play calling. I keep saying when you’re at corner you don’t really have a responsibility of knowing what everyone is doing. You’re out there on an island, man to man the whole time. Coming to safety I do feel comfortable out there. I like being in control and making sure everybody is in the same position and the right position. Putting people in position to make plays. It’s being back there as a quarterback and it’s something I grasped in the last season, and Jairus taught me a lot in how to control the defense and how guys can trust me to put them in the right position. Moving to safety is probably one of the best things to happen in my career."
Williams wasn't sure how his signing would affect the Bills' pursuit of Byrd.
"If Jairus does come back, that would be the greatest thing ever because our chemistry is unbelievable," he said. "I said it at the end of last season that we can look at each other and not even talk and know what we are talking about. If he doesn’t come back, good luck to him. We’re always going to be best friends. The business side is never going to change our relationship outside of football. We just have to move on and find another piece to try to replace his role and whatever we’ve got to do I know Russ and the office upstairs is going to have a game plan for that to happen."
Whaley seemed more definitive when asked Monday about replacing Byrd, who ranks right up there as one of the league's best cover safeties.
“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.” It seems the decision may have been made.