If a frustrating 1-3 start to the 2014 NFL season was not enough to discourage fans of the New Orleans Saints, things got even more complex Friday when it was announced that S Jairus Byrd will miss the rest of the year with a knee injury. Byrd, 27, suffered the injury in practice on Thursday. According to Saints coach Sean Payton, Byrd tore his lateral meniscus while turning to make a one-handed interception down the field. He underwent surgery Friday under the observation of Dr. James Andrews, and was placed on injured reserve shortly after.
With Byrd out for the season, Rafael Bush will slot in at free safety alongside Kenny Vaccaro at the back end of the Saints' so far underwhelming secondary. Upon signing a six-year deal with New Orleans as a free agent in March, Byrd and Vaccaro seemingly posed one of the league's most formidable safety tandems on paper. However, Byrd was limited throughout the team's offseason program after undergoing back surgery at the end of May. Although he appeared to make a full recovery from that injury, Byrd failed to make a significant impact for New Orleans outside of a forced fumble during the week 1 loss to the Falcons.
Likewise, Vaccaro has endured troubles of his own in the early stages of his sophomore campaign. The Texas alum has struggled in downfield coverage and has already missed more tackles through four games than he did all of last season as a rookie. Through just four games, Byrd had graded out as the 65th among 76 qualifying safeties per Pro Football Focus. Vaccaro ranked 76th out of the group. The Saints splashed the cash to bring Jairus Byrd to New Orleans.
Bush, who signed an offer sheet with Atlanta only to see the deal matched by New Orleans the following week, has been a solid player for the Saints throughout his two-plus seasons in New Orleans. Bush saw plenty of snaps a season ago as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan regularly utilized the 4-2-5 alignment due to injury and personnel reasons.
Having additionally handled some punt return duties while serving as the vocal leader of the secondary, Byrd was hoping to round into form as the Saints prepare to welcome the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 5. With a bye week immediately on deck, Byrd and his teammates who have stumbled out the gates to a 1-3 start, were looking to use the next two weeks as an attempt to recharge their batteries and kickstart what could still turn out to be a successful season. Byrd's father, Gill, is the cornerbacks coach in Tampa, and was looking forward to competing against his son this weekend.
It is fair to wonder whether or not Jairus Byrd would be able to regain the form which saw him earn the $54 million ($26.3 million guaranteed) the Saints gave him after five years in Buffalo which saw the former Oregon Duck intercept 22 passes during that time. Bush will be more than capable of filling in, but Byrd's loss means that no Saint on the active roster has forced a turnover thus far in 2014. The Saints were hoping to put an emphasis on takeaways this year, a giant reason for their pursuit of Byrd as an unrestricted free agent. The team took a similar approach five years ago, when they signed Darren Sharper to spearhead a similar plan to force turnovers, and that 2009 season culminated with New Orleans bringing home the franchise's first Super Bowl win.
While Byrd's loss stings at first glance, especially given the price New Orleans paid to bring him south, Bush's insertion may help the Saints. He and Vaccaro played well together in 2014, with Malcolm Jenkins, now in Philadelphia, also part of the equation. Rookie S Vinnie Sunseri may see some work in the secondary, and the team could also consider bringing back Pierre Warren, an undrafted rookie free agent who excelled during preseason and narrowly missed out on a roster spot. It also remains to be seen how the team will adjust in nickel situations. Patrick Robinson could get a chance to redeem himself after a poor start in the team's base defense, while rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste could be called into action, as well.
Jairus Byrd will be sure to crumple his first season as a New Orleans Saint right up into a paper ball and toss it into the nearest receptacle. However, it is important to keep in mind that the six-year veteran has a higher ceiling than maybe any other player of the Saints' current healthy defensive backfield group, and one can only imagine if he would have rounded back into his usual self at some point this season. Owed a guaranteed $8 million in 2015, Byrd will hope that next year brings a chance to set things right, otherwise his southward migration will go down as one to forget about.