NASHVILLE — Kevin Byard plays an often-overlooked position in an relatively small market and hails from a college program most casual football fans have never seen live. So it’s fitting that the most famous moment of his career was when a prominent TV personality didn’t know who he was.
A few months after Byard received his 2017 first-team All-Pro honor, he tweeted at NFL-legend-turned-TV-star Deion Sanders, questioning how Sanders could name Tyrann Mathieu the game’s best safety and “not include the two first-team AP All Pro safeties” (the other 2017 All-Pro safety was Minnesota’s Harrison Smith). Upon firing back, Sanders referred to Byard as “a fan,” a past great failing to recognize one of football’s current greats.
“[Byard is] probably the most complete safety I’ve played with,” says fellow Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro, who quickly follows with an homage to a college teammate, “[future] Hall of Famer” Earl Thomas. “But Kevin Byard, as far as in the box, man coverage, ball skills back deep, he’s probably the best I’ve played with.”
Last season, Byard’s numbers dipped from eight interceptions to four, 16 passes defensed to eight, and two fumble recoveries to none. He missed out on the 2018 All-Pro team. But the decline in numbers is further evidence that stats—especially for a safety—are finicky. Most football people, especially within the Titans building, believe Byard was better in 2018, and by a significant margin.
“He was,” says Titans cornerback Logan Ryan. “You’re not going to get eight interceptions every year … Plus, when you go All-Pro, offenses then know who you are and they’re going to try to find ways to factor you out. I talked to guys who played us this year, they said, ‘We saw Byard back there [in centerfield], we were not throwing anything deep. We’re going to go [to an empty formation] and throw quick game, you have too good a free safety.’”
Taking Byard out of games is difficult because he’s so much more than just a free safety. “Kevin, to me, is like a younger Eric Berry,” Ryan says. “He’s the best openfield tackler of our safeties, he covers man-to-man if we’re facing the best tight ends. He has the most interceptions out of centerfield. And he’s smart on a level that lets us communicate and change blitzes. And he is becoming a better blitzer. He was doing all that by Year 2 in his career.”
Byard took it to another level in Year 3 when the Titans overhauled their defensive approach, replacing previous coordinator Dick LeBeau’s system with a mix of new head coach Mike Vrabel’s scheme from Houston and defensive coordinator Dean Pees’s scheme from Baltimore—two of football’s most complex schemes to begin with. Titans defensive backs are quick to point out that their secondary, in terms of coverages, disguises and especially blitzes, does more schematically than any in the league. There are two keys: 1) corners like Ryan, Malcom Butler (expensive free agents), and Adoree' Jackson (first-round pick) who can each play man or zone and, 2) versatile safeties like Vaccaro and especially Byard.
“I pride myself on being able to play deep, being able to come in the box and play good run defense, being able to blitz,” Byard says. “And having the versatility to play the slot and cover tight ends—that's one thing you don't see a lot of safeties do consistently.”
Byard laughs when asked if he sent his agent, David Mulugheta, a gift basket back in March. Mulugheta also represents former Giant Landon Collins, who signed a six-year, $84 million deal ($44.5M guaranteed) in Washington, raising the high-water mark for guaranteed money in a safety’s contract by a staggering 11.25 percent.
“Going into this offseason, I didn't know the safety market was going to jump up that high,” Byard says. “So it’s like, ‘Ah man, that’s super good’—especially for Landon, [new Raven] Earl Thomas, those boys deserve it. I was definitely excited.”
His teammates leave no doubt as to whether they think Byard deserves it. “As far as being able to do everything, Kevin is the best safety in the league,” Vaccaro reiterates, adding that Byard should be the highest-paid at his position. “And when you’re paying Kevin, you’re paying a leader, you’re paying a good father, you’re paying a great teammate.”
Adds Ryan: “He’s always thanking his teammates. He wants a new contract and that’s going to probably have to wait, and I think he’s handling that very well. He’s here [in the offseason program], he’s being a leader, he’s even helping out potential replacements. His attitude is, ‘Whatever man, at the end of the day I’m going to be a good teammate.’ That’s where we have a special group [in this secondary]. It’s not built to last forever, obviously. Contract-wise, you can’t keep paying everyone forever. But we’re excited for this year, it’s maybe our last run.”
Indeed. Ryan himself is in the final year of his deal. And Malcolm Butler, one figures, could be on the outs in 2020 if he has another up and down season. (According to OverTheCap.com, the Titans can tear up his pricey contract for a $7.6M cap savings in 2020.) As for Byard? “I’m taking it day by day,” he says. “I understand it’s a business. It can go either way. They can pay this offseason, they can play this year out and try to franchise me—I try to just keep my mind off that stuff because I feel like it can almost drive you crazy.”
Watching film with Byard, it’s easy to understand how he has become such a versatile ball hawk. Besides strong playing speed and fluid change-of-direction prowess, he understands the game from a quarterback’s perspective.
In Week 1 against the Dolphins, he made one of last season’s most impressive pass breakups from centerfield, swatting away a deep shot to speed-receiver Jakeem Grant. “I wish I could have one-hand picked it,” he says with authentic ruefulness as the film rolls. “One thing I learned about playing [centerfield] is if the quarterback’s shoulders open, say to the right, then that quarterback is not getting back to the left. If the quarterback is going to throw to the left, at the top of his drop, his shoulders would be more squared. So I could immediately feel this throw, and as soon as I saw the QB take that hitch step, I just turned and went. It helped that I was already anticipating it, knowing that at that time of the game the Dolphins needed a big play, and that [Jakeem] Grant runs nothing except stop routes and Go balls.”
Watching his interception against Eli Manning in Week 15, he talked about the importance of a free defender in two-deep man coverage getting 22 yards from the line of scrimmage after the snap, which he says is the perfect landmark for defending any route. “Every third down in this game they kept throwing this ‘sail’ route concept, so I was already anticipating this one. As soon as I saw the receiver break out, I just took off because Eli Manning just kept throwing that ball. I don’t know why he threw this one, he definitely didn’t read it right.”
On another snap, Byard perfectly disguised a blitz, creating a sack opportunity for someone else—something, teammates note, he does regularly. “One thing that I learned more from Dean Pees is understanding how offensive lines block and make their calls,” Byard says. “That’s how we’d like to manipulate guys with our disguises.” Ryan raved about this with Byard, citing it as the biggest reason Titans had more sacks by defensive backs (9) than any team last year. “Stats and Pro Football Focus equate to what you do individually, but they don’t show what you sacrifice for your teammates,” he says.
Byard’s football IQ, you could say, launched his NFL career. Incredibly, he was not invited to the 2016 combine. A four-year starter at Middle Tennessee State (located just 30 minutes from Titans headquarters), he performed well at the Senior Bowl, the highlight being an interception against Jacoby Brissett in practice. But while fellow Senior Bowlers would talk about their combine invites, Byard was left out and baffled as to why. “I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting an invite,” he says. “Nobody really gave me an answer. My college numbers were off the charts. I broke pretty much every school record: 19 interceptions, four pick-sixes, 300-plus tackles, a bunch of different stats. Maybe because I was a small-school guy, but I was still accomplished at a D-I program.”
Of course, Byard wasn’t going completely unnoticed. In the early 2000s, Titans general manager Jon Robinson coached at Nicholls State where one of his players was Steve Ellis, Middle Tennessee’s defensive coordinator while Byard was at MTSU. “Steve raved about Kevin,” Robinson says. Steve would text Robinson updates on Byard every few weeks, and eventually Robinson put on Byard’s film. “He was a willing tackler and extremely productive on the ball. I think he had 19 interceptions in college. You don’t just stumble into 19 picks, whether it’s college, pro, high school, whatever.”
Byard discovered a silver lining to his combine snub: More personal visits with teams. “I ended up taking, like, 12 visits. I was able to have some real personal time with those teams’ GMs. I was able to sit down with DB coaches and watch film, talk ball.”
Byard’s agent, Mulugheta, told him he was being talked about as, at best, a fourth-round pick and, at worst, a seventh-rounder. “That’s not that good,” Byard remembers thinking. “But after my first week of visits, my agent was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing on these visits man, but you’re starting to climb up draft boards.’”
That included the Titans’. And so days before the draft, their entire brass caravanned over to Middle Tennessee State. “It was three or four to a vehicle,” Robinson recalls. “I drove and, I think, Dick LeBeau drove. We got there and Kevin was sitting in the film room waiting for us. He had everything lined up and was ready to roll.”
They had no idea that Byard had to be coaxed into taking the meeting.
“I was taking my last visit, it was in Miami. On these visits they’re wining and dining you,” he says. “You’re eating steak almost every night. So I’m not really in good shape. I get a call down there in Miami from my agent. He said, ‘Listen, the Titans want to work you out.’ This was like a week before the draft, I’d been on the road for two straight weeks. I said, ‘I’m not doing any more workouts, I’m done.’”
Other than sending a defensive assistant coach to Middle Tennessee State’s pro day, the Titans had had no contact with Byard. But shortly after the call, Mulugheta phoned again telling his client he needed to do the workout because the Titans were sending all of their big wigs and pertinent defensive coaches.
The on-field portion lasted about 10 minutes; the rest of the session was spent in the film room and at the whiteboard. The Titans had Byard take them through MTSU’s game against Alabama, Byard narrating all the calls and assignments. The Titans also installed portions of their own defense and tested Byard’s comprehension. “He nailed every call, you could see that he was a very cerebral player,” Robinson says.
“I’ll never forget,” Byard says with a grin, “Dick LeBeau was like, ‘This is the best meeting I’ve had with any DB [in that year’s draft process].’” Byard had wowed coaches in other meetings. They’d ask him to draw his favorite coverages and defensive plays and when he did, he’d include all 11 defenders, clear down to what specific alignments the defensive linemen were in. He didn’t realize how unusual that was.
And so the Titans took Byard with the first pick in the third round after rejecting offers to trade down. After the pick, “I got a couple of calls from teams that were trying to trade up with us,” Robinson remembers. “And they said, ‘You just took the guy that we were going to take.’”
Robinson’s next decision on Byard will be even bigger. The franchise tag for a safety is projected to cost over $13 million. A long-term deal could cost in the realm of $50 million guaranteed. Fortunately for the Titans, Byard is content to play out the final year of his rookie deal, which pays just over $2 million—greener pastures await. In the meantime, did he ever hear again from Deion Sanders?
“No, of course not,” Byard says. “I wasn’t really expecting to, though. He’s a legend, he doesn’t really have to respond. If anything, he probably feels like, ‘Hey, I’m giving this kid clout by responding.’ I just left it alone. He probably just made an honest mistake, he probably really didn’t know [who I was]. We’re a small-market team, we don’t get a lot of prime-time TV games, so he might not know. But if you work at NFL Network you should probably know who the All-Pros are. But it’s TV, man, people pick their favorites.”
Byard continues: “If you look up Deion’s stats, he was the Truth. That’s why I kind of just looked at [his tweet] like, ‘Man, he’s OG, a legend, I’ll leave it up to him.’ I felt like it would have been manning-up if he had just reached out to me, but he doesn’t have to. I’m trying to get that gold jacket like he has—if I get that gold jacket, then I’ll be able to say something to him.”
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