BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The Buffalo Bills aren't giving up on re-signing safety Jairus Byrd just yet.
Rather than allow Byrd to become an unrestricted free agent in two weeks, the Bills retained his rights by designating him their franchise player on Friday. In making the move three days before the NFL deadline for teams to apply franchise tags, the Bills essentially offered Byrd a one-year contract worth $6.9 million.
The decision didn't come as a surprise after Byrd established himself as one of the league's top young safeties during his four seasons in Buffalo.
His 18 career interceptions are tied for third most among NFL players since 2009, when the Bills selected Byrd in the second round of the draft out of Oregon. Byrd had five interceptions last year to finish tied for the AFC lead.
Applying the tag, however, doesn't guarantee Byrd's return to Buffalo.
Under NFL rules, Byrd isn't required to accept the offer, and he's also free to negotiate with other teams. The Bills, however, have insured themselves the right to match any offers or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation from any team that signs Byrd.
The move also doesn't prevent the two sides from negotiating a long-term deal.
Byrd's agent, Eugene Parker, told The Associated Press that's it's too early to determine his client's options.
"We aren't talking about next steps, yet," Parker said. "It's too early to talk about that."
Parker added he was not surprised by the team's decision.
"Not really. I knew it was something they had the ability to do," Parker said. "It is what it is. That's their right to do it."
There had been no formal contract talks between the Bills and Parker until the two sides met at the NFL combine in Indianapolis over the past week.
Byrd was selected to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, and was added to the Pro Bowl roster this year as an injury replacement.
Byrd was the most consistent player on an under-performing and high-priced defense last season. He finished fourth with 76 tackles while leading the team in interceptions and forced fumbles (four). He had a breakout season as a rookie, when he finished tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions — a rookie franchise record. Byrd also set a team record that season by having an interception in five consecutive games.
Losing Byrd would be a significant blow to the Bills, who once again find themselves in transition this offseason after Chan Gailey was fired following a 6-10 finish. Doug Marrone is the new coach and has brought in an entirely new staff that includes Mike Pettine, who takes over as defensive coordinator.
The defense is already undergoing a transformation. Over the past month, the Bills cut cornerback Terrence McGee, safety George Wilson and linebacker Nick Barnett, while veteran defensive end Chris Kelsay announced his retirement this week.
The Bills defense finished 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed and 26th in points.
Byrd becomes only the second Bill to be issued a franchise tag. The team made the same move with cornerback Nate Clements in 2006. Clements signed the one-year offer after reaching an agreement with the Bills that he would allowed to enter free agency the following year, when he left Buffalo to sign with San Francisco.
Aside from Byrd, the Bills are also attempting to re-sign left guard Andy Levitre, who is eligible to become a free agent after completing his four-year contract last season.