How do you explain going from zero interceptions in your rookie season to eight in your sophomore season?
Who knows, but that’s the story of Kevin Byard, the superstar free safety for the Titans entering his third season in the pros. Byard’s eight interceptions are the most from any defensive back in a sophomore year since Antonio Cromartie put up 10 back in 2007. That’s great company to be in, because like Byard last year, Cromartie was a first team All Pro at his position.
Make no mistake, Byard had a phenomenal 2017, one that established him as the premiere player on Tennessee’s secondary. But is he already the best player on the entire defense?
It may seem premature to give a safety entering his third year in the league that title, but this is an All-Pro safety we’re talking about. This is a player that tied for the league lead in interceptions in 2017 (with Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions). Besides, any Titans fan who disagrees with this notion can’t deny the enormous potential Byard has yet to reach at this moment.
With that said, let’s dive into Byard’s value to see how much he impacts the Titans’ defense.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, Kevin Byard led all safeties in defended passes last year with 16. Micah Hyde of the Buffalo Bills came in second with 13. Nine of Byard’s defended passes came in four games against AFC North teams, and all four of those games were played consecutively.
It goes without saying that Byard’s ability to defend the ball comes from his ability to play at a high level in both man and zone coverage, and he has the quickness needed to get it done. On this play, Byard surveys the quarterback, Deshaun Watson, putting him in his trap by moving inside left to give off the impression that Watson has Deandre Hopkins wide open without a chance at having the ball disrupted.
Of course, this is the correct read for the quarterback, but Byard offsets any impact that would have. He plants his feet and bursts over to Hopkins once the pass is released, and although Hopkins gets the ball in his hands, Byard wins the fight against him and pops the ball out, resulting in an incomplete pass.
We can’t talk about defended passes without bringing up interceptions, and considering eight of Byard’s 16 defended passes last season were interceptions, there’s a lot to choose from.
The Titans go zone defense against this play, which is a rollout to the right. Byard covers the area where the tight end in the flat is running, and spies DeShone Kizer looking over to Byard’s right. At that moment, Byard backpedals, and Kizer releases the ball a split second after. Because Byard’s vision is excellent, it allows him to show off his quality ball skills and bring in one of his three interceptions he had against the Cleveland Browns that day. It’s a bad read, but an impressive play from the safety.
Byard also has the coverage ability of a cornerback on the outside, giving the Titans a proven, versatile player in the secondary they haven’t had in a while.
I have no idea what Joe Flacco is thinking on this interception, but that’s for another article. Byard gets the leverage on the outside receiver, preventing any chance for Flacco to throw a back shoulder pass or go more inside. But because it’s Flacco, he does the latter anyway after pump faking and failing. Byard prevents the wide receiver from bailing out the quarterback with ease and snags in his second interception on the day.
If you want a player comparison for Byard, think of him as a safety version of Marcus Peters. Like Peters, Byard’s vision and athleticism are both excellent, making him a ball magnet that reads the quarterback’s eyes near flawlessly. Coincidentally, Byard was also second to Peters in return yards on interceptions with 130 to Peters’ 137 last year.
As a free safety, Byard is no stranger to the blitz, and neither is new defensive coordinator Dean Pees, previously with the Baltimore Ravens. Pees hasn’t had a free safety this high in quality since Ed Reed back in 2012, the only year Reed was with him as defensive coordinator (Pees was previously the team’s linebackers’ coach). Of course, Reed fell off after the 2012 Super Bowl season, while Byard is just getting his career started, so Pees has more to work with.
Reed in his prime wasn’t just a monster in coverage, but also as a blitzer. Byard can’t compete with the future Hall of Famer just yet, but he’s going into the right direction. Byard has the dangerously quick reaction time and vision to work as a blitzer, as seen on this delayed handoff. #31 isn’t fooled by the delay, using patient footwork to prevent any escape plan for Andy Dalton or the running back. The back gets the handoff, and Byard gets an easy tackle-for-a-loss.
And of course, we can’t talk about Byard’s impact on the secondary without bringing up his game saving interception in week 17 to send the Titans to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. His technique on this play is excellent, as he’s changing angles to follow Blake Bortles while managing to keep proper balance.
Byard backpedals to help cover the receiver on the outside right. As Bortles releases the ball, Byard pushes off his right foot and accelerates to the area the quarterback is throwing to. He snatches the ball from the air, sealing the game for the Titans.
So, while I can’t completely confirm Kevin Byard is the most valuable defender on the Titans roster, there is a strong case for it. He’s a ball hog that combines lighting quick reflexes with impressive speed in coverage, great ball skills, and tenacity to draw himself into and overwhelm the receiver’s window. Finally, Byard has the strong hands of the top receivers in the league, and his refined footwork executes the fundamentals of a defensive back to seemingly near perfection.
The Titans’ secondary would not be the same without Byard’s impact last season, and that’s obvious As the leader of the Titans secondary going into 2018, he is already a superstar safety and is only getting started on what looks like the beginning of an excellent career in football.