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Buffalo Bills: Is Aaron Williams the answer to Jairus Byrd’s departure?

Buffalo Bills safety Aaron Williams signed a four-year, $26 million dollar contract extension on Wednesday, with $14.625 million guaranteed. The extension makes Williams the eighth highest-paid safety in the league, in terms of average annual salary.

Most NFL fans don’t even know who Williams is, and the obvious question is why did Buffalo give one of its safeties a shiny new contract when his name isn’t Jairus Byrd? Now the Bills have less money to throw at their disgruntled 2013 All-Pro, and it’s not as if Byrd is willing to settle for a hometown discount or any other free agency myth. NBC’s Rotoworld says Byrd is a goner. It’s hard to disagree.

Bills CEO Russ Brandon denied accusations that the Williams extension indirectly ended Byrd’s tenure in Buffalo, and he could be right. Byrd has had a different safety starting beside him every season in his career, as well as four different defensive coordinators in five seasons. Team continuity is an alien concept to him. The Bills locking up Williams might be a way to show him that they are committed to keeping their young talent in house. Also, Williams has primarily played strong safety while Byrd is a ball-hawking free safety. There is enough room for both players on the field.

Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills

Jamie Germano / Democrat & Chronicle

However, there isn’t enough room for both players financially, according to Bleacher Report’s Erik Frenz.

“The Bills just invested $6.5 million annually in one safety, and it may take another $7.5 million to lock up Byrd on a long-term deal,” Frenz wrote. “Given how the Bills say they value the safety position, spending $14 million annually on two safeties does not seem like a direction they want to go. That would account for over 10 percent of the $133 million salary cap.”

From a team-building perspective, Buffalo doesn’t value safeties as must-have commodities that can transform a defense (which explains their investment on the defensive line). That is a good reason to let Byrd test the free agent waters, but it fails to explain why the Bills didn’t even attempt to use the franchise tag on him. So what if his attitude would have soured? Tagged players have never looked at the situation in a positive light, but they eventually saddle up and play through it, lest they want their market value to take a hit.

And thanks to most of Buffalo’s key offensive players being on rookie contracts, they aren’t hurting for cap space. Retaining a top player has a much better chance of paying off than signing a big-name free agent or sitting on your money, even if it’s just for one season with a different coordinator.

A new scheme can be a harbinger of regression for franchise mainstays, but Byrd is a good fit in any defense. And in recently hired Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense, Byrd is a great fit. Rob Quinn of Forged in Buffalo cites the Byrd as the prototype safety for Schwartz’s 4-3 defense.

“The free safety in this defense is the last line of defense,” Quinn wrote. “This player must have great range and be equally effective against both the pass and the run. The free safety will play a lot of single-high, Cover 1 and Cover 3, but he’s also responsible for cleaning up at the end of plays.”

Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills

James P. McCoy / Buffalo News

It’s the perfect scheme that would allow Byrd to continue his All-Pro level of play. Yet the Bills are passing on having the league’s best safety duo east of Seattle. Each NFL franchise has an allowance that grows every year; if money is Buffalo’s excuse, it’s a bad one. The Dallas Cowboys have improbably managed to take control of their salary cap, so there aren’t many scenarios in today’s NFL where Byrd re-signing would hurt the Bills long-term.

Alright, enough about Byrd; let’s talk Williams and why exactly Buffalo gave him an extension.

Before last season, Williams was a bust. The Bills took him in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft and expected him to become a quality starting cornerback. Williams struggled through injuries, and a typically relaxed Buffalo crowd wanted him to be cut after two years that showed little promise.

Once the 2012 season ended and George Wilson was released, Williams moved to strong safety. The position change illuminated his versatility, instincts and athletic ability needed to play safety. He’s a jack-of-all-trades at his best, displaying bits of Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed in the span of a few plays. Buffalo shouldn’t be bashful about moving Williams to the free safety spot Byrd previously occupied, and have Duke Williams or Johnathan Meeks start at strong safety. He ended 2013 with 82 tackles, four interceptions and 11 passes defensed, and now he’s getting paid. A year can make a lifetime of difference in the NFL.

Aaron Williams, Buffalo Bills

Bill Wippert / AP Photo

That’s not to say Williams is already a top five safety; he has a small sample size at the position, along with several nagging injuries and bouts of hesitancy typical of an inexperienced player. A new defense with bigger responsibilities could stunt his growth. Potential is still the buzzword on Williams, new contract or not.

For Buffalo, the extension indicates a change in front office philosophy. Instead of having an in-house talent run to greener pastures like in previous years (Jason Peters, Andy Levitre and soon Jairus Byrd), they locked up a player that shows wild promise while still being relatively unknown. They didn’t wait for Williams to become a Pro Bowler, jacking up his market value; they trusted the film and the stats to justify the new contract (To be fair, Byrd was a Pro Bowler in his rookie season). Now the Bills dictate the terms instead of the other way around. In NFL circles, this is a phenomenon known as “a smart move.”

The Byrd saga has taken a toll on the Bills’ health and well-being. Maybe both sides just don’t want to deal with each other’s crap anymore, or the money spent would be too much for Buffalo. Whatever the case, it looks like their current snafu will be a thing of the past, by extended one of their most promising talents in Williams.

The handling of Byrd and the handling of Williams aren’t independent of each other. In fact, the two situations show Buffalo shifting from a reactive franchise to a proactive one, or at least a hint of that. Front office confidence doesn’t win Super Bowls, but it’s a big step towards relevance and success.

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