Entering the 2014 offseason, the biggest story line relating to the Buffalo Bills was the pending free agent status of safety Jairus Byrd. The Bills elected not to use the franchise tag on him for a second straight season - a move widely believed to be a final good-faith negotiating tactic on the part of GM Doug Whaley - and on the first day of free agency, Byrd signed a six-year, $54 million contract containing $26.3 million in guarantees with the New Orleans Saints.
Byrd had been the centerpiece of Buffalo's secondary ever since his nine-interception, Pro Bowl rookie season in 2009. Now, he's gone - and while the Bills are not in dire straits at the position, by any means, there are plenty of worthwhile questions to be asking about this position with the start of the 2014 NFL Draft just two days away.
Talent on hand
Prior to Byrd's departure, the Bills made sure to affirm their commitment to their up-and-comer at the position. Aaron Williams, the 24-year-old former second-round pick out of Texas, signed a four-year, $26 million extension (containing $14.6 million guaranteed) a week before Byrd signed with New Orleans. It was an extension that Williams, after two seasons of highly inconsistent cornerback play, earned in full in his first season playing safety at the NFL level.
Williams' starting job is as secure as anyone's in the secondary. He played solid cornerback in a pinch for the Bills early last season, when the cornerback position was riddled with injury, and effectively resuscitated his career with the position switch, finishing the 2013 campaign with 82 tackles, four interceptions and a forced fumble. Athletically, he represents exactly what teams running cutting-edge defenses seek in safeties: players with size, toughness and the ability to cover one-on-one.
Beyond Williams, the team has options with question marks. Da'Norris Searcy, a year more experienced than Williams, has the best CV, and is coming off of a very good season himself (71 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception returned for a score). Where he lacks, however, is in deep coverage; he was, and probably should remain, a sub-package coverage linebacker that plays near the line of scrimmage.
Two 2013 draft picks, Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round), could also have an opportunity to compete for that starting job next to Aaron Williams. Duke Williams is the better prospect of the two - the 5'11", 203-pound former Nevada star has the same coverage versatility and near-identical athletic numbers to Aaron Williams - but he only saw 34 snaps on defense in a crowded secondary a year ago, and is therefore mostly an unknown. Meeks missed half of his rookie year due to injury, and only played on special teams when healthy.
The Bills also signed cornerback Corey Graham to a starter-level contract (four years, $16 million) in free agency. Graham made his name as a nickel cornerback with the Baltimore Ravens for the last two seasons, and the initial thought was that he'd play that role in Buffalo, in addition to bolstering the team's special teams ranks. Recently, however, Bills head coach Doug Marrone, along with Whaley, have left open the possibility of Graham playing some safety, remaining intentionally vague about their intentions for his playing time.
Need assessment: Competition Upgrade
The Bills could be in much worse shape, to be sure, opening up that second safety spot to a competition between three mid-round picks (Searcy was a fourth-rounder in 2011) that they like, and potentially Graham. That group of Searcy, Williams and Meeks offers a nice array of skills; perhaps that competition, should it play out, will simply come down to which skill set best complements Aaron Williams.
While acknowledging that the team has more pressing positional concerns, it's also worth pointing out that, if they're not wholly comfortable with the shape of that competition, they could at least address the position early enough to provide another competitor for the group. It would be especially helpful if they could find a guy that has a similar deep-field coverage emphasis that Byrd became known for; that skill set blended perfectly with Williams' skill set a year ago, and the Bills enjoyed some of their best safety play in years.
As a possible indicator that the Bills are comfortable with their brewing competition between Searcy, Williams and Meeks, the team did not bring in any safeties on pre-draft visits to Orchard Park. As a possible indicator that they're perhaps keeping the option open anyway, they emphasized bringing in Day 2 cornerback prospects that are athletically similar to Williams and Williams; Bashaud Breeland of Clemson and Ross Cockrell of Duke, in particular, could be viewed as potential safety prospects.
This is a fairly loaded position through the first two rounds. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville could both be selected in the top half of the first round, and there is also some chatter that Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois could sneak into the back end of Round 1, as well. Deone Bucannon of Washington State and even Lamarcus Joyner, the 5'8" defensive back out of Florida State, are strong considerations in Round 2.
Let's say that the Bills decide that a) Searcy is better off left in his Bryan Scott role, and b) Graham is more valuable to the team as a slot cornerback. In that scenario, how comfortable are we knowing that either Williams or Meeks will be in the starting lineup?