(Photo Credit: USA Today via Reuters/Tim Heitman)
The new NFL season is still a somewhat distant dream for fans, but with OTA’s starting the long, dark, offseason is at least brightening.
The Tennessee Titans start their preparations under a new head coach and with a defense that received a shot in the arm during the draft. Mike Vrabel’s credentials are as a defensive coach, and the addition of Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry look like they could make the whole unit a more deadly group.
However, they aren’t the biggest reason for optimism with the Titans defense. That honor goes to their young free safety.
A new force in town
Free safeties are often the forgotten man in football. So much of their work is done off camera and away from the ball that it is easy for fans to disregard their impact. It’s not so easy for quarterbacks though, and in 2017 there was no free safety that made a bigger impact on quarterbacks than Kevin Byard.
The 24-year-old 2016 third-round pick started all 16 games for Tennessee last year and rewarded them with an NFL co-leading eight interceptions and a positional co-best 17 pass breakups.
The influence Byard had was remarkable. While the Titans pass defense ranked 24th in DVOA last year, they were the No. 3 defense on deep passes thanks to his incredible range and ability to be in the right place at the right time.
What others are saying
A good way to judge the impact a player has is to look at what other players think about him.
We knew he was going to be one of our best players, most dominant players. KB is growing, and he’ll keep getting better. It is always amazing to see a young kid like that to start to come of age and take over. He is going to keep getting better every game. – Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard
I’ve been around a lot of great players, and he has definitely blossomed into one of those greats, the way he is playing this year. We are going to keep following his lead because he is making some play out there. – Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo
I think he is one of the more talented young safeties in the league right now. What really separates him is his range and his ball skills. He goes sideline to sideline and makes plays on the ball all the time. – Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu
That is a lot of praise from some teammates who see what Byard does every day, nevermind just on Sundays, and another highly rated safety. But Byard’s play on Sundays has earned him plenty of accolades. He was #80 on the NFL.com top 100 and was named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers, and Pro Football Focus. Byard may not be a household name right now, but it won’t take long for fans to get up to speed with his level of play.
Quarterbacks weren’t afraid to test the Titans deep last year, and Byard made them pay, not just there but all over the field. In 2018, he will still be good, but quarterbacks are likely to pick him up pre-snap more regularly and avoid him. The interception total is likely to drop due to being challenged less, but that in turn will open up opportunities for others. Like a great nose tackle, brilliant free safeties end up making life easier for others while seeing fewer chances for splash plays themselves. Byard is well on his way to being one of those players.
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