Jairus Byrd had a living-room seat next to greatness. His father, Gill, was a two-time Pro Bowler that intercepted 42 passes in 11 seasons with the San Diego Chargers. Jairus went to the games with his family and watched his dad dominate pick by pick.
Only thing is, Jairus and his brother hated it.
“It was like our day was interrupted,” Byrd said. “We had to stop playing. We had to get dressed and go to the games with my mom. We just hated it.”
Well, maybe the genes were enough then. Because Jairus Byrd is on the fast track to replicating his father’s banner career. At Oregon, Byrd’s mitts were always on the ball. He intercepted 17 passes and broke up 54 more in three seasons. No, the Bills didn’t need a defensive back. Not at all. With bigger fish to fry at left tackle, Buffalo surprisingly snared Byrd at the 42nd overall pick. Kind of like buying a flashy new grill when the faucet’s broken (although Langston Walker sure is one mammoth plumber).
Byrd’s nose for the ball is why. The best-kept secret in Buffalo was the improvement of the defense last year. Through the team’s General Motors-sized collapse last season, Perry Fewell’s unit quietly leapfrogged from 31st to 14th in the league. The front four wasn’t bullied and the back four wasn’t stumbling into each other.
Still, the ‘D’ lacked bite. Nobody had more than four sacks and nobody had more than three picks. First-round pick Aaron Maybin should fix the former. And Jairus Byrd should fix the latter. Byrd stutters and pauses trying to explain how he’s able to be in the right place at the right time all the time. Baseball, maybe? Maybe dinging the ball so much as a kid helped his hand-eye coordination, he ponders. Hmm, who knows?
“When the ball’s in the air, I can’t even put it in words, but it’s something that came easy to me,” Byrd said. “Some people struggle with it, but catching the ball is just really natural for me.”
Byrd never expected the Bills to take him. The cornerback visited a flurry of teams on day trips before the draft. New England, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Tennessee — those were the favorites. Not Buffalo.
The only contact Byrd had with the Bills was a brief meet-and-greet at the NFL Combine. The fact that they took him with major needs at offensive tackle and outside linebacker is satisfying, he agrees.
“They weren’t one of the teams that was on my radar,” Byrd said. “But for them to come and know they liked what they saw and come take me is a great feeling.”
Byrd’s bridge to Buffalo was Fewell, who served as the St. Louis Rams’ secondary coach when Gill Byrd was the Rams’ secondary assistant from 2003-05. Fewell checked out Byrd’s high school games and talked to him often off the field.“When he was with the Rams, I’d go over there and hang out,” Byrd said. “But at the same time, Coach Fewell is just a great guy. He always said 'Hi' and asked how I was doing.”
It never crossed Byrd’s mind that he could possibly play in Fewell’s defense some day. But come late July, he’ll battle Ko Simpson for a starting safety spot. Byrd missed Buffalo’s OTAs due to Oregon’s quarter system, but he shouldn’t be too far behind.
He's not overly fast. Byrd is a cerebral player first and foremost. That was always dad’s biggest advice — study up, be prepared. Since being drafted, Byrd has kept up on Buffalo’s defensive installations, page by page.
“When you get to this level, it’s understood that everyone has physical talent,” Byrd said. “That’s not the problem. The challenge now is understanding the game. That’s what he’s told me. It’s more of a mental thing now.”
After Simpson’s so-so season, and um, off-field drama, Byrd should compete from day one. Fewell is green-lighting Byrd to do what he does best. Fly around. At Oregon, Byrd had surges of big plays at cornerback. Now at safety — lurking in more real estate — he should do even more. Precisely what Buffalo's solid, yet stale, defense needs.
“Coming in,” Byrd said, “they just want me to be a ballhawk and do what I do... Pretty much, it’s understood that once you go in there, everyone is competing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there 10 years or one year. Everything is a competition.”
Maybe Byrd didn’t like going to all those Chargers games as a kid, maybe he wasn’t exactly taking notes in the stands. But something clearly passed down to him from Gill.
That’s one explanation for those Velcro hands, anyways. Genes.
“We were blessed generationally and it passed down to me,” Byrd said. “I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity.”
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of BuffaloFootballReport.com and also writes for the Buffalo News, Olean Times Herald and Packer Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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