What Kevin Byard deal means for Bears defense, 2024 NFL draft


What Kevin Byard deal means for Bears defense, 2024 NFL draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Bears ticked several important boxes when they agreed to a two-year contract with All-Pro safety Kevin Byard on Sunday. At first glance they added a bigtime ballhawk to replace Eddie Jackson in the back of the defense. They also importantly added a safety who will complement Jaquan Brisker, and filled a big hole on their roster with the draft approaching.

We know what head coach Matt Eberflus wants in his defensive backs. He’s made it clear repeatedly over his two seasons leading the team. Eberflus requires the guys in the secondary to tackle well and take the ball away. Byard meets both marks.

Byard burst onto the NFL in his sophomore season when he led the league with eight interceptions and added two fumble recoveries. He earned First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors that year. Since then he’s been one of the most reliable takeaway machines in the game. In 130 career games Byard has 28 picks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and one defensive touchdown. Byard was recognized with his second First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods in 2021. He’s also an upgrade from Jackson in the tackling department. According to PFF, Byard has a very good 6.8% missed tackle rate over his career. That’s a big upgrade from Jackson’s 14.5% missed tackle rate. Byard set a new personal best with 122 tackles last season.

Durability is another key difference between Jackson and Byard. Jackson missed 10 games between the 2022 and 2023 seasons with a nagging foot injury. He missed two games in 2021 due to a hamstring injury and two more, plus a playoff game in 2018 with an ankle injury. Byard has never missed a game over his eight-year NFL career. He only played 16 games in 2023 because he had a bye week with both the Titans and the Eagles after he was traded to Philadelphia.

Having Byard in the mix should help Brisker play to his strengths, as well. The Bears like to use Brisker in the box as a strong safety due to his big hit upside. The Bears describe him as a “thumper” who helps to defend the middle portion of the field. Byard on the other hand is best known for his work in the deep portion of the field. That natural blend of skillsets should give the Bears the backfield they want in the immediate future.

What the backfield looks like in the distant future is still a question, however. Byard will turn 31 this season, so the Bears likely don’t view him as a long term answer at free safety. Instead, he could be viewed as a high-performing bridge player while the team works to add young talent in the back of the secondary. That’s important because the Bears still have several holes to fill on their roster. They need to add at least two wide receivers, an extra defensive end or two, probably a three-technique defensive tackle, competition on the offensive line and potentially a running back, too.

As things stand, Poles only has five draft picks to work with. By signing Byard to start, the Bears can now move safety down the priority list in this year’s draft. With only Elijah Hicks (655 career snaps) and Quindell Johnson (35 snaps) on the active roster as reserve safeties, the Bears will need to add to the position at some point. But if they don’t add a few more picks before April, Poles may opt to address more pressing needs in the draft.

The Eagles traded Terrell Edmunds and fifth and sixth-round draft picks in the upcoming draft to acquire Byard from the Titans at last year’s trade deadline. The hope was Byard would help to steady their struggling defense for a postseason run, but it didn’t play out for them. The Eagles were bounced by the Bucs in the Wild Card round after Baker Mayfield went off for 337 passing yards and three passing touchdowns.

The Bears cut Jackson last month. That move cleared up over $12.5 million in salary cap space, per Spotrac.

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