Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s free agency additions.
Name: Damiere Byrd
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 27
Size: 5-foot-9, 180 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? Byrd started his NFL career in 2015, when the Carolina Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent. After spending his rookie season on the team’s practice squad, he made its 53-man roster the following year but did not have any notable impact: Byrd appeared in one game during which he caught a 16-yard pass, and was later moved back to the practice squad again before finishing the season on the active team. While he started to see a bigger role the following two years, injuries shortened both campaigns.
Byrd played in a combined 16 games between 2017 and 2018, primarily as a punt and kickoff returnman, but two separate broken arms and a leg injury forced him to end each of the two seasons on injured reserve. The Panthers therefore decided not to bring him back during 2019’s free agency, and the South Carolina product ended up signing a one-year pact with the Arizona Cardinals. The decision to join the Cardinals proved to be a good one for Byrd, though, who produced the best season of his career in his new environment.
What did his 2019 season look like? After signing a one-year, $720,000 contract in Arizona, Byrd was able to carve out a role as the team’s third wide receiver behind Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. As such, he appeared in 11 of his new team’s games during the regular season and was on the field for 43.4% of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps (455 of 1,048) while playing primarily on the perimeter. This usage fit him well, and Byrd went on to set new career marks in every major receiving statistic.
All in all, he finished the season with 32 catches for 359 yards — ranking fourth on the team in both categories — while also finding the end zone once. Byrd also added 59 more yards as a part-time kickoff returner, averaging 14.8 yards on his four runbacks. As opposed to his time in Carolina, however, his special teams contributions were negligible: Byrd was primarily used on offense, and performed comparatively well with an increased role.
Despite his solid production, however, he was no fixture within Arizona’s passing attack and used mostly in a rotational manner alongside fellow backup receivers Andy Isabella, KeeSean Johnson and Pharoh Cooper. This led to him missing three straight games — Weeks 9 through 11 — as a healthy scratch, on top of the two he missed in late September and early October after suffering a hamstring injury.
What is his projected role? Even though his comparatively small frame makes him look like a prototypical slot receiver, Byrd actually saw the vast majority of his playing time in both Carolina and Arizona on the perimeter: in 2019, for example, he lined up split out wide on 93.6% of his offensive snaps. Given this experience plus his straight-line speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds during his pro day in 2015 — he projects to fill the X-receiver role in New England’s scheme previously held by free agency departee Phillip Dorsett.
What is his special teams value? While the Cardinals shied away from using Byrd on special teams outside of six snaps in Week 2, he brings some experience in the kicking game to the table. While he ran back only 26 combined kicks — 14 kickoffs and 12 punts — since entering the league, he did find some success in both roles with the Panthers: he returned 10 kickoffs for a combined 294 yards (29.4 yards) and a touchdown and also averaged an impressive 9.4 yards on his 12 punt returns.
Does he have positional versatility? Based on his first five years in the NFL, Byrd seems to have only limited versatility on the offensive side of the ball: as noted above, he is an outside receiver first and foremost. That does not mean that the Patriots will not try to move him around the formation, but expectations should be limited in this regard. His real versatility lies in his ability to also make an impact in the kicking game.
What is his salary cap situation? The Patriots signed Byrd to a one-year free agency contract that hits the team’s books with a $1.5 million salary cap hit. While the total numbers may not stand out, New England did guarantee a significant portion of this deal: Byrd received a $350,000 signing bonus and also had $250,000 of his salary guaranteed. In the event of a release, the team would therefore have gross savings of “only” $921,875.
What is his roster outlook? Despite the guarantees in his deal, Byrd is no lock to make the Patriots’ active roster. Instead, the 27-year-old will have to compete for a rotational spot behind roster locks Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry. His biggest assets in this battle are his speed as well as his experience on special teams. If he can take advantage of them and adequately fill the third/fourth role previously held by Phillip Dorsett, Byrd might very well find himself on the team’s 53-man squad come the regular season.