Last week, I wrote about the Patriots' lack of dynamic offensive speed in 2019 and how — in 2020 — it probably wasn’t going to look much different.
But if there’s a Patriots receiver who’s going to make a liar out of me, it will probably be Damiere Byrd.
The free agent pickup from Arizona was the first free agent signed by the Patriots this offseason. His resume is modest, just like the other players the Patriots plucked in their cash-strapped trip to the market.
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But Byrd — like the other signees we’ll be highlighting this week — comes with a specific skill set the Patriots need. And that’s why we’ll start with him as the Most Likely To Succeed free agent pickup for 2020.
Byrd doesn’t actually have just one skill set the Pats need. He’s got three.
He’s fast. He gets open. He catches the ball.
All three attributes were hard to find among Patriot wideouts last year. And it bit them hard.
How fast is Byrd? During his Pro Day at South Carolina he was timed at 4.28 in the 40. On grass.
From longtime NFL draft and personnel whisperer Gil Brandt in 2015:
Wide receiver Damiere Byrd (5-9 1/8, 173) ran the 40 in 4.28 seconds. He ran it just once since his left calf muscle tightened up on him. Byrd had a 42-inch vertical and 10-foot-11 broad jump. He did the short shuttle in 4.03 seconds, the three-cone in 6.6 seconds and the 60-yard long shuttle in 10.90 seconds, which is unheard of (that time is faster than any other time posted at the 2015 scouting combine). Byrd also had 13 strength lifts. Byrd — who has a track and field background — is a small guy with a lot of speed. With those kind of pro-day numbers, Byrd will be a minimum of a priority free-agent pickup for a team following the 2015 NFL Draft.
After leaving South Carolina with modest numbers, Byrd did indeed wind up a priority free agent. And he landed with the Panthers. And didn’t do much.
He spent 2015 on the practice squad then bounced between the practice squad and active roster in 2016, catching one pass. He was on his way to carving a niche with the offense in 2017 before he broke his arm in a preseason game against the Patriots. He broke his arm again in 2018. He was released by Carolina after those three years and 12 receptions (10 in 2018).
Then he signed with the Cardinals, where he stayed healthy long enough to compile some stats. Byrd would up third on the team in wideout receptions with 32 for 359 yards and a touchdown. Playing as a complementary player to Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, he actually had outstanding success getting open. He was tied for 10th among receivers in average separation with 3.2 yards.
Does he catch the ball? Byrd caught 70 percent of the balls he was targeted with and 89 percent of the catchable balls that went his way. That ranked 11th and 12th.
Byrd also has a little experience returning kicks. Nothing extensive but, given the Patriots practically bailed on returning punts in the second half of the season, it’s not a bad thing having a guy who can do that.
I asked longtime Cardinals beat writer Darren Urban what else he could tell me about Byrd.
“When he first signed right around the owners' meetings (in 2019) one fan was insistent he was worthless and wouldn’t make it onto the field,” said Urban. “But the coaches automatically liked him from jump. They loved the way he addressed his technique, his work ethic.
“He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the loudest guy so he’s not going to make a huge impact in that way in the locker room and he’s not going to be a No. 1 receiver,” Urban added. “But what he is going to do is battle.”
While we can expect tweaks to the Patriots' post-Brady offense, Byrd is less likely to be an underneath guy who gets a bunch of checkdowns. He’d seem best suited for tear screens, outside-the-numbers work downfield and taking advantage of mismatches when he gets the opponent’s third or fourth corner across from him.
“He does have speed,” said Urban. ”He flourished last year early on when they were in four-wides. He will be there when you need him. You won’t target him 10 times a game but he did make some big plays and showed a toughness that you didn’t expect when you first saw him.”
Through the years, secondary receivers like Danny Amendola, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and others flourished in New England. All came with far more extensive résumés than Byrd, whose body of work is far more modest (it’s actually closer to Phillip Dorsett’s than any of the others, even though Dorsett was a first-round pick by the Colts).
And that’s the qualifier one has to add. Will quarterback Jarrett Stidham be afforded the time and have the poise to get to Byrd? Was Byrd limited by injury and opportunity or is he just a fringe guy who's always going to be a fringe guy?
We’ll see. But the opportunity is there for Byrd to flourish.