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20 - Can Byrd repeat his rookie feat?

Every summer leading up to training camp asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.

As the Buffalo Bills limped to a 6-10 finish in 2009, the roster decimated by injuries, the future leadership of the team in doubt, it seemed that there were far fewer positives to take out of the campaign than negatives. The season's biggest positive, however, may eventually outweigh all such negatives for years to come. It can be said, at least in the Bills defensive backfield, that 2009 was the year that "Byrd was the word."

After being selected with the 42nd overall pick in last year's draft out of the University of Oregon, Bills safety Jairus Byrd did not wait very long to take the NFL by storm. He made his first career start Week 5 against Cleveland, a game in which he also intercepted his first pass as a professional. That initial takeaway sparked an astounding seven additional picks over the next four games alone. Byrd's final season totals, 45 tackles, a team-record nine interceptions by a rookie, and 11 passes defended, not only earned him a Pro Bowl bid, but he finished as the runner-up to Houston's Brian Cushing for the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year award. 

The aforementioned injury bug that depleted the Bills roster all season long finally caught up with Byrd as well, as he missed the final two regular season games with a torn labrum in his hip. It was revealed that he had played the majority of the year with the injury, which in hindsight make his accomplishments all the more impressive, and was serious enough to require surgery at season's end.

Due to his rehabilitation schedule, Byrd was limited for much of the minicamp and OTA slate, very involved in team work on certain occasions, and an observer during others. While the injury put a screeching halt to his impressive freshman campaign, Byrd has remained positive about how far his recovery has come.

"I felt pretty good. I'm coming back into the swing of things, but the rest of it is just on-the-field stuff," he said after an OTA practice in June. "It (the hip) has to loosen up, there is some tightness in there, but the rest is just getting out and working it out on the field."

The sooner Byrd returns at full speed, the better for Bills fans. As a player who grew into a fan favorite last year, many supporters will be eager to see him back on the field in game shape by the start of training camp July 29. That, along with the fact that Byrd missed a large part of training camp last year due to a non-football injury, may have the crowd at St. John Fisher yearning to catch a glimpse of Number 31 at his familiar safety post.  

Not only would the fans like to see Byrd participating fully, but so would the coaching staff, as defensive coordinator George Edwards is still hard at work installing the 3-4 scheme, a defensive game plan where the safeties can be virtually interchangeable.

In the 3-4, the safeties periodically switch where they line up in the secondary, a pre-snap disguise directed at causing confusion for the opposing team's quarterback. Where this could work to the advantage of the Bills is if that signal caller loses track of a ball hawking defender the caliber of Byrd, it could spell big trouble for Buffalo's opponents. Recognizing the adjustments that are needed to properly carry out the new scheme, Byrd said he was hard at work during spring meetings, absorbing all he could off of the field, as well as the work he was able to put in on it.

"There are a lot of different things in this defense. We'll be making other teams think more instead of just being here and here and being so mundane," he said. "We'll be switching things up a lot pre-snap with moving around. It should be good."

If the Bills defense is able to execute the new defensive system the way it is designed, the opportunity for takeaways by Buffalo defensive backs should be on the upswing. For Byrd, who will no longer be "flying" unnoticed in the secondary, the implementation of the 3-4 should provide the dynamic playmaker with even more opportunities in 2010, a prospectus that has motivated him in his return to action.

"It's hard not to be optimistic," Byrd said. "I'm just excited that I've come this far from where I was. My goal is just to keep pushing forward."

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