Leonard Johnson, who also played for Sean McDermott when he was with the Carolina Panthers in 2016, performed admirably for the Buffalo Bills primarily manning the slot cornerback position last season. Johnson signed just a year-long contract with the Bills though, so he’s scheduled to hit the free-agent market come March.
With fellow corners E.J. Gaines, last season’s starter on the right side, and Shareece Wright (Gaines’ backup) scheduled to hit the open market as well, the Bills will soon find themselves having to make some tough decisions in regards to a position that was part of unit that was unquestionably the strength of the defense in 2017, if not the team overall as well.
The 30-year-old Johnson, who says he wants to play for the Bills long term, has also talked about his love for the city of Buffalo in addition to his admiration to the Bills organization. He posted 52 tackles, broke up seven passes, and also forced a fumble last season. For his performance, Pro Football Focus gave him a ranking of 88th among all CBs.
Should the Bills bring him back? Let’s answer this question by comparing Johnson to some of the projected free agents that are likely to also play in the slot next season.
Ross Cockrell, 26, New York Giants UFA
Perhaps some Bills fans will remember Cockrell. Buffalo took him in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, but he recorded just one tackle that season. Since then, Cockrell has played for both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Giants. His three interceptions with New York last season would have been good for third amongst all Bills defensive backs, and second amongst the team’s corners.
2017 stats: 50 tackles, 3 interceptions, 11 passes defensed
Pro Football Focus CB Ranking: No. 39
Robert McClain, 29, Tampa Buccaneers UFA
McClain is on the small side (5’9”) but that doesn’t stop him from holding his own. He started nine games for the Buccaneers last season and even lined up at safety for them.
2017 stats: 50 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defensed
Pro Football Focus CB Ranking: No. 84
Nickell Robey-Coleman, 26, Los Angeles Rams UFA
Talk about a real blast from the past. Robey-Coleman, who’s even smaller than McClain (5’8”), spent the first four seasons of his career with the Bills before landing with the Rams last season. Robey-Coleman had a solid campaign in his lone season with the Rams.
2017 stats: 39 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defensed
Pro Football Focus CB Ranking: No. 19
Sharecee Wright, 30, Buffalo Bills UFA
Wright’s stats for the 2017 season weren’t that far behind Johnson’s, despite making two less starts and playing in the three less games overall. Realistically, both players are likely to have a similar market value, so it would perhaps come down to a tossup if the Bills decide that they only want to keep one of them.
2017 stats: 44 tackles, 1 interceptions, 5 passes defensed
Pro Football Focus CB Ranking: No. 88
None of the players listed above offer a real appealing case to become Johnson’s replacement. Because there are no obvious free-agent alternatives and Johnson will surely check in at a cheap rate on the open market, I can’t think of a legitimate reason as to why the Bills shouldn’t put forth a valiant effort to re-sign him. Besides, having played for McDermott the past two seasons, Johnson has got to be a full on “process” guy, right? They can’t afford to be letting too many of those guys go. ... The process is just now really starting to take place in Buffalo.