It's been well documented that Bills rookie safety Jairus Byrd has football instincts that are greater than the average NFL player. Constantly anticipating and being around the football is what he's known for, but it's not his physical talent as much as his mental acuity for the game that's made him such a playmaker to this point in his career.
But that mental approach to the game didn't appear out of thin air. It was developed by Byrd thanks to input from a pair of Pro Bowl defensive backs.
Byrd's first tutor was his father, Gill Byrd, a former first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback. With 42 career interceptions the elder Byrd had valuable football knowledge to pass on to his two sons, Gill Jr. and Jairus.
"I was getting the finer points when I asked," said Byrd. "And I asked a lot of questions. I'm intuitive and I want to know things. So I think when that came he just taught me everything he knew and that I asked to know I guess. When I asked he was glad to share and help me out."
"They would work out all the time," said Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who coached with Byrd Sr. in St. Louis. "His dad challenged him not only physically, but mentally so his mental approach would develop. He and his dad have watched numerous tapes together and they have studied the game so that Jairus has a clock in his head and he has a sense of what to do, when to do it and how to do it."
While attending high school in the St. Louis area, Byrd was also influenced by another Pro Bowl defensive back in the Rams' Aeneas Williams.
"He used to work out at the high school I was at so I would sometimes go down there and work out with him," said Byrd. "I was just a sponge. I think he's one of the best to play the position and just to be able to be taught under him and learn different things like footwork, hip flip, life lessons on and off the field. I was just a sponge and soaking everything up. He's just a pro in everything. So I just learned how to be a professional on and off the field as a teenager."
Byrd, who played free safety in high school, was playing the same position as Williams, who transitioned to free safety at the end of his career from cornerback with the Rams.
"I'd just try to listen to everything he said and emulate what he did the best way I could," Byrd said.
Mission accomplished according to Fewell.
"I can see some of the same foot movements, same hand placements, same steps and then the mental approach to the game, he's grown by leaps and bounds," said Fewell. "I could see that in his game even when I watched him in college where I asked Jairus, 'Do you still work out with Aeneas?' And he said, 'Yes.' I can see the same traits in him."
That's a big statement by Fewell who sees some of the same components to Byrd's game that he saw when he was coaching Williams in St. Louis. Williams finished his 14-year career with 52 interceptions, good for 17th all time in league history.
But the reason some of the league's best takeaway artists are so successful in most cases has more to do with anticipation than physical skill. Everyone is physically skilled in the NFL, but the ones that can most effectively anticipate what's about to happen to use those skills are the ones that make the big plays most often.
For Gill Byrd and Aeneas Williams that came from diligent film study, recognizing an offensive play caller's preferences in certain down and distance situations, receiver tendencies and quarterback play. The Pro Bowl defensive backs put it all together and knew when to make an educated guess instead of a blind risk in an effort to make something happen. And there is a difference.
"A blind guess is when you don't watch any film and go by what you're told," said Byrd. "Educated is when you really put in time and study and watch film and you know what tendencies a receiver likes to do that might tip you on what to do and what's coming next. I do study film, I take pride in that and I think that only gives you an edge and helps you as a player."
"I think that's where I've seen him grow," said Fewell. "And that's the way Aeneas Williams played. He would study his opponent and know the alignment, formations, motions and shifts and could take an educated guess in order to get from point A to point B and intercept the ball. I've seen that within this young man, from high school to now."
In a three-year college career Byrd had 53 pass breakups and 17 interceptions. And though Byrd made those plays at cornerback at Oregon, Buffalo will have him back at free safety where the opportunity to make plays on the ball will be even greater.
Having played there in high school Byrd settled back in quickly in centerfield during Buffalo rookie camp.
"It felt comfortable," he said. "I hadn't played it in college, but it was just going back to what I was doing in high school pretty much. It's been a while, but I just have to get my feet wet and it's just about learning everything. It's more demanding at the corner position with your footwork. I think at safety it's not as demanding (physically), but the mental game is more."
Which is why the Bills see Byrd as a fit at the position.