Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.
All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is wide receiver Damiere Byrd, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.
Name: Damiere Byrd
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 10
Opening day age: 28
Size: 5-foot-9, 180 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
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 return man, 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. After a rather productive season in Arizona, he moved on once more: the Patriots brought him aboard on a one-year pact.
What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off the best season of his career — Byrd caught 32 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown in his lone year as a Cardinal — the veteran wide receiver arrived in New England on a one-year, $1.6 million free agency contract. While the Patriots’ passing offense as a whole struggled in Year One without quarterback Tom Brady, Byrd himself had a strong campaign and set new career marks in playing time, touches and yards.
Serving as New England’s de facto number one wide receiver, Byrd appeared in all 16 of the team’s games and was on the field for 901 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (89.1%). While not a true WR1 in terms of usage or production, he was a regular member of the Patriots’ offense and ranked in the top three in every major receiving category: Byrd caught 47 of the 73 passes thrown his way — ranking third and second in the two categories — for 604 receiving yards (2nd) as well as a touchdown (3rd).
Byrd’s usage and route tree was limited for much of the season, but grew slightly as his first year in the system went along. He played mostly on the offensive left early on while primarily running comebacks, outs and shallow crossers, but later was moved around a bit more to take advantage of his speed. Still, he and the Patriots’ aerial game in general likely would have benefitted from a more reduced role within the offense rather than Byrd being employed as a focal point throughout the year.
His comparatively limited role was not that big of a surprise, though, considering that he had to learn one of the NFL’s most challenging offenses without the benefit of a normal offseason or any preseason games. Still, it cannot be denied that he failed to provide a consistent receiving option. Add the fact that he fumbled the ball three times, was rarely used on special teams, and left the regular season finale with a concussion, and his first year with the Patriots was not all positive despite the statistics.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? When Byrd arrived in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, he signed a standard three-year pact with the Panthers. Over his three seasons with the club, however, he regularly moved between the active roster and practice squad before signing an exclusive rights tender sheet worth $630,000 in 2018. He joined the Cardinals on a one-year, $720,000 deal the following offseason, before coming to New England on a one-year, $1.6 million pact in 2020. All in all, his contractual career earnings are estimated at around $3.8 million by Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Byrd will likely not be considered a Phase One free agent once he hits the open market on March 17. That said, some teams looking to add experienced wide receiver and return game depth might be interested (via Pro Football Focus) — from the Baltimore Ravens, to the Chicago Bears, to the Detroit Lions, to the Miami Dolphins, to the New Orleans Saints, to the New York Giants, to the Washington Football Team, to the Patriots themselves.
Why should he be expected back? Byrd entered a challenging situation when he arrived in New England, but still earned regular playing time as the team’s top wide receiving option. The Patriots will likely attempt to upgrade the position this offseason, but bringing the 28-year-old back would still make sense: he has some experience to build on, and could be of value when used in a smaller and more specialized role to offer depth in the passing game.
Why should he be expected to leave? He is coming off a career year, but Byrd was still part of the problem for the Patriots in 2020. In turn, they could decide to simply start from scratch at wideout and invest their resources elsewhere instead of bringing him back into the fold. Likewise, Byrd might be looking for a team with a more established receiving cast better suited to use him according to his strengths and limitations.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Byrd gave the Patriots everything he had in 2020, but was a victim of an offense that simply did not have the receiving talent to use him in the best possible fashion. With some reinforcements likely on their way — New England has a projected $64 million to work with in free agency — bringing Byrd back as well to play a more complementary role would make sense. A one-year deal similar to the one he signed last offseason could be a fair deal for both sides.