In 2018, Rafael Bush played 40% of the defensive snaps for the Buffalo Bills. Clearly the third safety isn’t just a depth role on the team, as Bush saw himself lined up as a third safety, nickel cornerback, and as the center fielder on the defense throughout 2018.
With starters Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer being so heavily relied on to play 100% of the snaps, the Bills haven’t had to spend a lot of time addressing the question of what happens when one of them is injured or needs a breather. Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about replacing either of Buffalo’s Pro Bowl-level starting safeties. We’re talking about contingencies and complements.
When everything is going according to plan, there’s no need for backup safeties. Unlike defensive linemen for the Buffalo Bills, starting defensive backs are expected to play every single down. Not everything went according to plan though. Micah Hyde was injured and didn’t appear for about two games and Jordan Poyer missed a handful of snaps. Admittedly that’s not much to go on, but the Bills did put safeties on the field for nickel and other defensive-back-heavy formations.
Backup safeties in Buffalo were used in the traditional sense only when absolutely necessary. And even then, game plans seemed to suggest an attempt to hide weaknesses as we saw with Marlowe. Rafael Bush was a trusted asset, but overall the coaching staff seemed to prefer him in a nickel role out of the slot.
Comparing to game play when Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were both on the field, it’s clear that the Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier system demands a lot out of their starting defensive backs. Seemingly interchangeable, Poyer and Hyde are able to create confusion on the back end of plays. The drop-off when one half of the duo wasn’t present is noticeable, albeit mitigated to some degree by coaching. Neither Marlowe nor Neal appear to have inspired a ton of confidence at One Bills Drive, and Rafael Bush was strongly preferred in the slot role. With their penchant for tinkering on defense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see competition brought in.
Does Buffalo currently have a solid third safety option on the roster? The three other internal options at safety are all currently signed to team-friendly, low-cost contracts: Rafael Bush, Siran Neal, and Dean Marlowe.
Bush, 31, appeared in 15 games (seven starts), making 45 tackles with 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits. Bush’s strength’s include rushing the passer and delivering punishing hits in the secondary. He needs to improve his coverage ability, but he possesses enough skill to warrant the first look as Buffalo’s third safety heading into the 2019 season.
Marlowe, 26, appeared in two games (one start), finishing with five tackles and one pass breakup. A former member of the Carolina Panthers, Marlowe played every snap of Buffalo’s 13-12 win over the Tennessee Titans, coming up with four tackles and a big pass breakup in the win. Signed for a $645,000 cap hit ($0 in guaranteed money), Marlowe should provide Buffalo with another low-cost depth option who knows Frazier’s defense.
Neal, coming off a less-than-inspiring rookie season, is the other internal option at third safety. Neal, a fifth-round selection in 2018, contributed mostly on special teams. He appeared in all 16 games but logged only 15 snaps at safety compared to 249 on special teams. He finished with 11 tackles (two for a loss) with one sack, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
Here are the free-agent options available to Buffalo if they decide to go in another direction.
Thomas broke his leg against the Arizona Cardinals in September, and he was having a phenomenal season before the injury. He had 22 tackles, three interceptions, and three pass breakups through four games. Signing Thomas is a pipe dream, but if you’re going to sign a new safety, why not sign the best possible player?
Another solid safety hitting the open market coming off an injury, the 29-year old former third-round draft choice suffered a torn PCL in his Week 3 game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Conte totaled 14 tackles before he was injured, but his career averages for his previous years are solid: from 2012-2017, Conte averaged 61 tackles and two interceptions per season.
The big-hitting soon-to-be 38-year old veteran tweeted that the Carolina Panthers intend to go in a different direction next season, meaning that the former Panther is now eligible for speculation as the next new acquisition for the Bills. Adams showed few signs of slowing down last season, notching 75 tackles and three interceptions on the year.
Deionte Thompson (Alabama)
Taylor Rapp (Washington)
Nasir Adderley (Delaware)
Johnathan Abram (Mississippi State)
Mike Edwards (Kentucky)
Juan Thornhill (Virginia)
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida)
Darnell Savage, Jr. (Maryland)
Jaquan Johnson (Miami-Florida)
Marvell Tell III (USC)
Now it’s your turn to tell us what you think. What should the Buffalo Bills do behind Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde during the 2019 offseason?
What should the Buffalo Bills do behind Poyer/Hyde in 2019 offseason?
This poll is closed
Stick with Bush, Marlowe, and Neal
Sign a starting-caliber third safety
Draft a player with the idea they’ll be third safety
Draft a player as depth behind the current group of safeties
Overhaul all three depth spots