ORCHARD PARK, New York — Bills safety Jairus Byrd has gone from being noncommittal to open-minded in softening his outlook about his future in Buffalo.
Though far from ready to commit to signing a long-term contract on Tuesday, the two-time Pro Bowl player — for the first time this season — wasn't ruling out the possibility, either.
"Sure, anything can happen. You never want to close the door to anything," Byrd said. "I'm just keeping my mind open."
That's a big step forward for Byrd. As recently as three months ago, he was sidestepping questions about whether he wanted to be traded, and expressing disappointment over the team's decision to apply a one-year franchise tag in March.
"I don't want to go back and re-track where I was," Byrd said. "But at this point, all I can answer is you asked me how I felt right now, and I'm open-minded."
Byrd was careful to point out the decision is not entirely his, noting the Bills will have a say in the matter once the two sides are allowed to open talks following the season.
"It's not totally up to me," he said. "I can't say, 'Yeah, I'm going to be here' or whatever. It's great to say I'm open-minded, which I am, but that's really as far as I can go."
The Bills haven't wavered in their desire to re-sign Byrd, and haven't ruled out the possibility of applying the franchise tag once more this offseason. The question remains whether the two sides can find a common ground after failing to reach a deal this past year.
In retaining Byrd's rights, the Bills failed to lock him up to a long-term contract. Byrd missed nearly the entire offseason before signing his one-year, $6.9 million franchise tender in late August.
That left Byrd frustrated and questioning his desire to stay in Buffalo because the team prevented him from testing free agency, where he was expected to attract numerous lucrative, long-term offers.
Byrd then missed the first five weeks of the season because of plantar fasciitis in both feet.
With his feet feeling better, the fifth-year player has begun showing signs of his best form with the Bills (4-7) coming out of their bye week still on the fringes of a muddled AFC playoff picture.
Buffalo prepares to face the Atlanta Falcons (2-9) on Sunday in the Bills' annual "home" game at Toronto.
Byrd has three interceptions in his past two games, and is coming off his most dominant outing of the season. He had two interceptions and a sack in a 37-14 win over the New York Jets on Nov. 17.
His playing time has increased, as has his comfort level with Buffalo's attacking style of defense introduced by new coordinator Mike Pettine.
"It was just a matter of time. I just had to feel comfortable," Byrd said, noting that Pettine is his fourth coordinator in Buffalo.
What's not changed is Byrd's ability to be a difference maker since the Bills selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft.
Since his rookie season, Byrd's 21 interceptions rank second among NFL players.
Byrd's return coincided with the return of starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who missed the first five games because of a broken wrist. Together, they've helped the defense make the jump from ranking as low as 28th in the NFL in yards allowed to 15th entering this week. Buffalo's pass defense has also shown a marked improvement.
The Bills were allowing an average 271 yards passing through their first six games. In their past five, they've allowed an average of 229 yards in the air.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin credits Byrd's presence as making a big difference.
"He makes it better. He's the quarterback," McKelvin said. "When we have a ball-hawk like that in the secondary, you know you can always be more aggressive ... because you know you always have Byrd in the back to help you out."
Pettine is impressed by what he's seen out of Byrd and how he's found a niche in his defense. And yet he declined to get drawn into a discussion regarding how better the Bills' defense might have been if Byrd had not missed the entire offseason.
"You would waste a lot of energy worrying about what-ifs," Pettine said. "We're just happy that we have him now, thrilled to have him now."
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