Kevin Byard wasn’t supposed to be this good. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, one of the best talent evaluators in football, gave Byard a sixth- to seventh-round grade when he entered the 2016 draft out of Middle Tennessee State. Here’s how one NFC scouting director assessed Byard, per Zierlein.
“Ankle tackler so that’s a concern and I just don’t trust him in coverage. I know he has all the interceptions but I don’t see a player who can match up in space against NFL-caliber receivers. I know some scouts love him because of his football IQ, but that’s not enough for me.”
The Titans weren’t dissuaded, and used the first pick of the third round (No. 64 overall) on Byard. The 5’11”, 211-pounder became a starter for Tennessee midway through his rookie campaign, and has since proved himself to be one of the best values of that 2016 draft.
Per Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric, which attempts to encapsulate a player’s production in a single number, Byard has been the 11th-most valuable member of the 2016 draft class. He’s produced 23 points of career AV, tied for second among defenders with 49ers defensive end DeForest Buckner and Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack (Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey is first among defensive players).
Byard is now arguably the best player on the Titans’ defense (although perhaps Jurrell Casey would like a word), and of the top-graded safeties in the NFL. He led the league in interceptions (eight) in 2017, and leads the NFL in picks over the past two combined seasons. Pro Football Focus, meanwhile, has graded Byard as a top-eight safety in each of the past two years, noting both his pass coverage and run defense acumen.
Set to turn 26 years old in August, Byard will hit unrestricted free agency next March. So what would an extension between he and the Titans look like? The first factor to examine is the 2020 safety market, which is, in a word, barren. Devin McCourty is scheduled to become a free agent next spring, but the longtime Patriot will be 32 years old at that point. Other free agent safeties, such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Rodney McLeod, D.J. Swearinger, Damarious Randall, and Karl Joseph could struggle to garner significant contracts, based both on their production and the recent history of safety deals.
Byard will likely be the most attractive free agent safety available, but Tennessee does hold some leverage in the form of the franchise tag. Unless Marcus Mariota posts a breakout campaign in 2019, the Titans don’t have any other realistic candidates for the franchise tender. Under the tag, Byard would receive roughly $11.5MM in 2020; if the Titans franchised him again in 2021, he’d pick up another $13.8MM or so. That’s $25MM+ guaranteed over the next two seasons, which should create an absolute floor in negotiations.
Byard and his camp will almost certainly point to Landon Collins‘ six-year, $84MM pact with the Redskins — signed this past March — as a contract comparable, and he’d be right to do so. However, it’s possible that the rest of the NFL will view the Collins deal as an outlier (“that crazy Washington front office!”). Even when adjusting for inflation of the salary cap, Collins’ contract is the sixth-most valuable safety deal of all-time, which doesn’t exactly match his production.
Still, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Byard is able to top $14MM/year, the mark hit by both Collins and Tyrann Mathieu this offseason. He just may not surpass the record $44.5MM in full guarantees that Byard collected from the Redskins. Instead, beating Mathieu’s $26.8MM guarantee and aiming for something in the $30-32MM range seems more feasible for Byard.