The New Orleans Saints made a huge, unexpected splash in free agency as they agreed to terms with prized Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd on a six-year contract, the team announced Tuesday night. The deal is worth a maximum of $54 million, including $28 million guaranteed, according to ESPN.Byrd’s deal came on the heels of former Saints starting safety Malcolm Jenkins agreeing to a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday afternoon. Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler, will be introduced by the team at a press conference at the Saints facility Wednesday.
“I first want to thank the Buffalo Bills organization and the great fans of Buffalo for their support during my time there. I think there are great things to come here in New Orleans, and I’m excited to join this team,” Byrd said in a statement released by the team. “We played against the Saints this year (35-17 loss in Week 8) and I saw their style of play and was impressed by it.
“I think I will fit well in the scheme. This is a great opportunity to join a championship organization. I look forward to meeting my new teammates and being part of a great Saints defense.”
Jenkins said the Saints never made him an offer, forcing him to look elsewhere, and it looks like the Saints had loftier plans of landing one of the top overall free agents on the market.
The Saints weren’t in a position to spend megabucks on a free agent as they were about $2 million under the $133 million salary cap before the Byrd deal. So New Orleans will have to make significant maneuvers to make this deal work as Byrd secured the $9 million annual price tag he sought in free agency.
However, his cap hit will only be around $4 million in his first year, according to the NFL Network, who reported the Saints will spread out an $11 million signing bonus over five years, giving Byrd a initial low base salary.
Byrd, 27, is a proven playmaker. He had 22 interceptions in five seasons in Buffalo, and the 5-foot-10, 203-pound stalwart also added 356 total tackles, three sacks, 33 pass defenses, 11 forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns.
The Bills’ 2009 second-round pick out of the University of Oregon dealt with plantar fasciitis last season, limiting Byrd to only 11 games and nine starts. But that didn’t stop Byrd from being widely dubbed as one of the top overall free agents on the market.
“We had hoped for the opportunity to pursue Jairus Byrd,” said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. “After meeting with him, we are excited that he will become a member of the New Orleans Saints. We think that his playmaking abilities will be an excellent fit with what we are trying to accomplish with our defense and in our secondary.”
Kenny Vaccaro was the only safety under contract with the Saints for the 2014 season before the Byrd deal. The Saints have issued a restricted free agent tender to Rafael Bush worth $1.4 million, but he has yet to sign it.
A duo of Vaccaro and Byrd would likely be considered an upgrade from what the Saints fielded in the secondary last season (combination of Jenkins, Vaccaro and Harper) even though the team ranked fourth in total defense, second in pass defense and fourth in scoring defense in 2013. The Saints tailed off in takeaways, though, during the second half of last season, and Byrd’s ball-hawking reputation can help remedy the problem.
Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said via Twitter, “Welcome to the #whodatnation @jairusbyrd! Let’s be great!” Cornerback Corey White added: “@jairusbyrd welcome to #WhoDatNation glad to have you on our side. Looking forward to playing with you.”
Defensive end Junior Galette also said via Twitter, “@jairusbyrd welcome to #DomePatrol HD Homie!!! Let’s Get Dis RING!!! #WHODAT.”
As for making Byrd’s salary work, the team will add $3.5 million in salary cap space once it finally unloads running back Darren Sproles. There are also options such as parting ways with running back Pierre Thomas ($2.9 million salary cap figure in 2014) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($6.1 million in 2014) that could help them fit Byrd’s salary.
New Orleans also has starters such as tackle Zach Strief and center Brian de la Puente on the free-agent market. But with so much money tied to Byrd, securing either offensive linemen could be challenging. The Saints also used the franchise tag last month on tight end Jimmy Graham worth $7.035 million in lieu of a long-term deal. Graham has until July 15 to sign the tender.
Jenkins, the team’s 2009 first-round pick, was a four-year starter in New Orleans. He said the Saints didn’t put up much of a fight to hang on to him as he agreed to a contract worth up to $16.25 million with the Eagles.
“For me, this was an uncomfortable process,” Jenkins said Tuesday night. “You invest and give five years to a place. You invest so much into the team, into the community. We won the Super Bowl there, I met my wife there, I had a daughter there, I have a home there. And then the business part of free agency comes, and it just didn’t work out.
“I know they had a lot of money tied up. I completely understand the business part, but the Saints didn’t offer me anything. So I really had no choice but to move.”
Jenkins’ departure was among a veteran exodus from the Saints this offseason. New Orleans also jettisoned longtime starting defensive backs Roman Harper and Jabari Greer, outside linebacker linebacker Will Smith and wide receiver Lance Moore, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma wasn’t re-signed.
“They’ve obviously made a lot of big changes,” Jenkins said. “I’m sure they have a reason for those changes. I’m not really exactly sure what’s going on. We didn’t really hear much from them.
“There wasn’t a lot of communication going back and forth. That’s kind of how the thing is. It’s just part of the business. Sometimes a situation presents itself and sometimes you have to part ways.”
Jenkins, 26, became the starter at free safety for the Saints to open the 2010 season after spending his rookie season as a jack-of-all trades player with roles on defense and special teams. He tallied 358 total tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and six interceptions, with two of them being returned for touchdowns, during his tenure with New Orleans.
Jenkins likely will become the starting free safety for a Philadelphia team seemingly on the rise.
“They told me I was No. 1 on their list,” Jenkins said. “As soon as the free agency period opened, they contacted my agent immediately. They wanted to do something fairly quickly.
“It’s a good deal for me and my family. I think I’m in a good situation with the scheme of the defense and with what direction the team is going.”
Punter Thomas Morstead is the only member of the Saints’ 2009 draft class remaining on the roster. The loss of Jenkins also means the Saints don’t have a defender on the roster from their Super Bowl XLIV championship team.