Veteran safety Jairus Byrd, the newest member of the Panthers, might turn out to be a dud.
Byrd’s balky knee might flare up again, or it could just be that Byrd will be a step too slow to keep up with Detroit’s Golden Tate this weekend and the other wideouts he’ll face over the next few weeks filling in for the injured Kurt Coleman.
Or Byrd may rediscover the ball-hawking skills that landed him the NFL’s richest free agent contract a few years ago and he’ll invigorate a defense that has been Peanut punch-less the last few weeks in terms of takeaways.
But the fact that Byrd is on the roster tells you what Ron Rivera and Marty Hurney think about this team’s chances – and the go-for-broke mentality inherent with an interim general manager and a head coach who could be on the hot seat with another losing season.
The Panthers could have elevated one of the two safeties on the practice squad to keep the seat warm while Coleman recovers from a sprained MCL and Demetrious Cox rehabs an ankle injury.
But their first move following the 33-30 victory at New England that improved their record to 3-1 was to add another 30-year-old to their collection of greybeards on defense rather than go young.
It’s similar to the Super Bowl season of 2015, when then-GM Dave Gettleman traded for proven edge rusher Jared Allen when Charles Johnson was hurt and later acquired veteran Cortland Finnegan for the stretch run when the cornerback group was thinned by injury.
“That’s a great comparison because that is what we did talk about, ‘Hey, we’ve got an opportunity here to pick up a guy that’s been in systems and understands systems,” Rivera said of signing Byrd. “The other bonus we get out of this, too, is he’s been in this division. So he knows Atlanta. He knows New Orleans. He knows Tampa Bay, as well.”
Who knows if it’s going to work?
Byrd, who turns 31 on Saturday, has been working out in New Orleans hoping for a team to call after three injury-plagued seasons with the Saints.
The Saints gave Byrd a six-year, $54 million deal that included $26.3 million guaranteed – the most guaranteed money among all free agents in 2014 – after he’d made three Pro Bowls in five years in Buffalo.
Things went south for Byrd in New Orleans almost immediately.
He tore his lateral meniscus during practice before Week 5 and missed the rest of the 2014 season. The knee troubled Byrd the next two seasons as well, when he was a shell of the player who’d snagged 22 interceptions in five seasons in Buffalo, including a league-leading nine as a rookie in 2009.
The Saints cut Byrd in a cost-cutting move in March, and he spent time in Los Angeles and New Orleans trying to stay in shape. The Panthers brought Byrd in for a visit during training camp to see if he was healthy and told him to stay in shape.
There was little from Byrd’s New Orleans tenure to suggest he’s going to be a force for the Panthers’ defense. But the Panthers are paying a small price – Byrd reportedly will make the veteran minimum of $900,000 – to see if Byrd has anything left in the tank.
It’s worth noting that while Allen was a good fit in the Panthers’ locker room, he wasn’t terribly productive. After two sacks in his first three games with Carolina, Allen had none over the final nine regular-season games and was inactive for the NFC Championship Game vs. Arizona with a foot fracture.
Byrd, 5-10 and 205 pounds, will get his chance to show he can still play Sunday at Detroit. Rivera said he expects Byrd will pick up the defense quickly.
After that, it’s up to Byrd.
“Any time you step out on the field or are playing this game, I always have something to prove. That’s just how I’m wired,” Byrd said Wednesday. “Injuries are part of this game and unfortunately there’s not much you can do about that. Now it’s about taking care of my body and just making sure I’m available and doing what I need to do.”
Byrd has a built-in network of friends and family with the Panthers.
He’s the nephew of assistant defensive backs coach Richard Rodgers and played with tight end Ed Dickson and running back Jonathan Stewart at Oregon, where he roomed with Stewart.
Dickson praised Byrd’s character, his sure hands and his overall ability.
“I think he’s a very stand-up man, for one. Good player,” Dickson said. “He’s been bothered by injuries a little bit in his career. If he’s healthy, he’s one of the best safeties I’ve seen.”
And if not, no one can accuse of Hurney and Rivera of not bringing in a veteran on a prove-it deal in what’s a prove-it year for everyone in the organization.