The Buffalo Bills have a job opening in their starting defensive backfield following the free agent departure of Jairus Byrd.
Aaron Williams, who was signed to a four-year, $26 million contract extension this offseason after the team decided not to use the franchise tag on Byrd, is now the Bills' highest-paid defensive back, and will hold down one of the starting safety jobs. Who will line up next to him remains a mystery, for now, but among the three contenders for the gig, none has ever been a full-time starter in the NFL.
Da'Norris Searcy, a 2011 fourth-round pick out of North Carolina, enters this training camp competition as the only starting candidate with any substantial experience at the NFL level. He broke into the lineup regularly in 2012 (playing 272 snaps), where he platooned with former starter George Wilson for a while and did some work in nickel and dime packages.
Last year, his playing time soared to 729 snaps as a part-time starter and key member of nickel and dime packages; only six Bills defenders were on the field more often than Searcy in 2013, and he responded with a career year of 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks, an interception, seven defended passes, two fumble recoveries, and two touchdowns.
Searcy has limitations in coverage - he is not especially rangy, and plays better moving downhill than he does trying to stick with receivers in man coverage - which is why the Bills brought Jim Leonhard onto the field a ton last season for coverage purposes, moving Searcy down into a nickel linebacker role. It would not be surprising if that continues in a scenario where Searcy wins the starting job next to Williams, but right now, it's hard to argue that anyone has a better claim to the gig than the fourth-year pro.
Duke Williams, a fourth-round draft pick a year ago out of Nevada, may very well be the Bills' most athletic safety. A high school track star and three-year starter with the Wolfpack, the 5'11", 203-pound prospect has 4.48 speed with a 37.5-inch vertical, a 10'6" broad jump, and the type of fluidity in space that allows him to drop into the slot and cover receivers himself. He did a lot of that at Nevada.
As a rookie, however, Williams barely played. He didn't see any reps after Week 6, when Byrd and Stephon Gilmore returned to the field following injuries, and only played 34 snaps in those first six games. (22 of those came in Weeks 3 and 4 against the Jets and Ravens, respectively, when Leodis McKelvin was also injured, and Aaron Williams was forced to play cornerback.) He did contribute 289 special teams snaps, the third-highest total on the team, as a rookie.
In terms of pure upside, Williams looks like Searcy's best challenger for the starting job. If new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is looking to field a safety tandem with interchangeable skill sets, then in theory, starting Williams and Williams makes the most sense. But the Bills are deep enough in the secondary where they don't necessarily have to rush a project into the starting lineup, so Williams will need to show a fair bit of improvement if he's going to seriously contend for the role.
Jonathan Meeks, last year's fifth-round pick out of Clemson, is a sleeper candidate to sneak into this race, but lacks the athletic prowess and the football acumen of his draft classmate, Williams. If Meeks can emerge as a reliable depth player and a staple of the team's special teams coverage units, the Bills will have a valuable commodity on their hands.
It's also possible that, if neither Williams or Meeks is able to impress enough to push Searcy for the starting job, that free agent cornerback signing Corey Graham could factor into the team's plans at safety. We fleshed this out in more detail yesterday, but the short version is that Graham has safety and corner skills - much like Williams and Williams - and in certain looks, the Bills can move Searcy down into the box and let Graham play deep zones or drop down into matchup coverage.
Williams is the name to watch here. He offers more upside than anyone at the position, and has the type of versatile skill set that modern defenses desire. But it's looking more likely than ever that the starting safety job will be Searcy's to lose when training camp starts, and the presence of Graham may relegate the impact of this race to the base defense (i.e. less than half of the team's snaps), anyway.