Michael Griffin and Chris Hope spent many years patrolling the secondary for the Titans. Here’s what impresses them about Kevin Byard’s ball-hawking ability and his all-round game.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Over the course of their lengthy Titans careers, Michael Griffin and Chris Hope played a combined 15 seasons in Nashville, totaling three Pro Bowl appearances.So it’s only natural that the two former safeties – who started alongside one another here for four seasons – keep their eyes on who’s playing the position today.
In separate interviews this week, both Griffin and Hope heaped praise upon Titans second-year free safety Kevin Byard, who leads the league with six interceptions in eight games.Byard has made five of those interceptions over his last two games, the first NFL player to accomplish that feat since DeAngelo Hall did so in 2010. His six picks are the most for a Titans player since Griffin snared a career-best seven in 2008.
“He’s always around the ball and he just has that knack about him – I don’t think it’s anything you can coach,” said Griffin, a nine-year Titans starter at free safety from 2007-2015. “You’ve got to be able to read the quarterback’s eyes and get to (the spot), you’ve got to judge the location of the ball once it’s released and you’ve got to have great hands. He’s got great hands.”
Byard and Griffin share the same agent, so they’ve gotten to know one another over the past couple of years.
When the Titans played in Houston earlier this season, Griffin – who lives now in Austin, Texas – attended the game and told Byard before the contest to get himself an interception. Byard did just that, producing his first NFL pick in the Titans’ one-sided loss that day.
Griffin compared Byard’s interception against Houston, when Byard dropped down in coverage to pick off Deshaun Watson, to an interception made by Seattle All-Pro Earl Thomas during his rookie season.Another one of Byard’s interceptions – one of the three he snagged against Cleveland – reminded Griffin of a pick made by Seattle’s four-time Pro Bowler, Kam Chancellor, a few years ago.
“He’s the kind of player who wants to be the best,” Griffin said of Byard. “I read articles about him studying safeties and trying to incorporate their games into his. But at the end of the day, he’s right there at that next level. He’s taken that next step in his second year. The sky is the limit for this kid.”
Hope, who played primarily strong safety for the Titans from 2006-2011, first met Byard when he spoke to Middle Tennessee State University’s football players a few years ago. He’s followed Byard ever since, even scouting him at the Senior Bowl when Hope interned for the Titans’ front office in 2015.
Count Hope as a fan of Byard’s all-round game, not just his ability to make interceptions.
“He has awesome ball skills and a great sense of instinct for the game,” Hope said. “He’s always in position, and that’s what I look for when I think about playing safety. He plays with good pad level, plays with good intensity and he loves the game. He wants to cover, he wants to blitz, he wants to be in the box. He wants it all.”
Hope, like Griffin, notes Byard has a special talent for picking off passes, one that became evident in college when Byard set an MTSU record with 19 interceptions.“He’s a guy that wants the ball,” Hope said. “He loves making tackles and big hits, but his number one thing is getting the football.
“You think about the Ed Reeds and the guys that played safety in the NFL that were just straight flat-out ball-hawks. They all had that skill of just feeling what’s coming, having an instinct to go where the quarterback is going with the ball and baiting him to make the throw.”
Byard is a big part of the reason the Titans’ passing defense, which finished 30th in the league last year, has improved to 18th halfway through this season.
The Titans have surrendered just 16 pass completions over 20 yards this season, tied for first in the NFL. They’ve allowed just one touchdown pass over 20 yards, again tied for first in the league.
“I think last year we gave up a lot of deep balls,” said Byard of the Titans, who finished 26th in pass completions allowed over 20 yards last year. “But I think the majority of the time this year we’re really playing with good technique. Our corners are playing over the top and they know what to do. I think that’s the biggest improvement from last year is the cornerback play.”
But Byard acknowledges he sees quarterbacks paying more attention to him these days as well, the result of the interception spree.“I do kind of notice it a little bit – quarterbacks will kind of look at me a little bit before they snap the ball to see where I’m at,” Byard said. “But I hope they’re not taking too much time doing that. I hope they’re sleeping on me a little bit so I can pick off a couple more passes.”
Hope says that with the traits Byard is showing on and off the field, he’s likely to have success for a long time.
“He’s a student of the game, and the times I’ve been around him, he’s real humble,” Hope said. “He respects the older guys that have come through before him, and that’s always a plus for a young guy.
“He talks football all the time, he talks about studying the game all the time and he loves playing football. When you get a guy like that, you know you’ve got a gem.”
— Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.