One phrase that Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott has used about competition on the roster is “iron sharpens iron.” In the cornerback meeting room, the team has a lot of iron this offseason and the battle for spots is heating up in OTAs.
After Vontae Davis quit on his team at halftime early in 2018, the Bills turned to several players to fill the void. Ultimately, the job fell to undrafted free-agent rookie Levi Wallace who played adequately opposite former first-rounder Tre’Davious White.
This offseason, the Bills have looked to further bolster their cornerback depth chart, possibly in place of Wallace, an they signed two talented players with starting experience to compete at the position; former first-round pick Kevin Johnson and former Bills starter E.J. Gaines.
“The corner position, we’ve got some good competition,” noted defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier this week. “We’ll see how it unfolds as time goes on but right now it’s really good to watch. To see those guys compete every single snap and battling for a spot. Who’s going to be the starter? Levi [Wallace] is the incumbent, he’s done a really good job for us, played well for us down the stretch last season. We’ll see how it shakes out.”
As OTAs have ramped up, the narrative around the position is that while Wallace is taking first-team reps, Johnson has been very impressive on the second team. Bills Digest reporter Mark Ludwiczak, in particular, lavished Johnson with praise:
“Free-agent addition Kevin Johnson looks outstanding so far. If he keeps this up, he’ll absolutely become the second starter at CB.”
“He’s a former first-round pick who had a good career in Houston, the injuries are kind of what sidetracked him,” said Frazier, referencing Johnson’s concussion history. “You saw the ability coming out of college. He did a really good job in his rookie year, off to a really good start. The injuries have kind of [crept] up. We’re hoping that he can stay healthy, we know he has the talent to really help us. We’ll see as time goes on.”
Johnson played in only one game last year after dealing with another concussion. The Bills were able to sign him cheaply because of the injury history, and with the depth they have at the position, they won’t be sunk at the position if he suffers another injury.
Don’t overlook Gaines making a push, though. After dealing with his own injury issues the last several seasons, he’s not a guy you want to exclusively count on either, but he played well for Buffalo in 2017. He played just six games for the Cleveland Browns a year ago, but 11 for the Bills a season prior.
Frazier mentioned Gaines as a player who could play in the slot and outside, adding value on a team where slot cornerback Taron Johnson gutted his way through injury last year and the team had to repeatedly turn to safety Rafael Bush.
To his credit, Wallace is worrying about himself and not the guys playing behind him.
“Just going to try and keep mastering my position, growing. We have more competition here,” Wallace told One Bills Live earlier this month. “Definitely just trying to be a leader in the room, for whoever comes in, this side of the ball, the defense. Just trying trying to be able to help those guys and elevate everyone and not just myself.”
“Wallace shows good awareness that unfortunately isn’t always matched by his experience and ability. There are a few things a clever team could exploit in Wallace’s game but several other aspects that make it hard to play against him. Wallace has already outplayed expectations, but look for him to make a bigger impression in year two.”
The cornerback competition is going to be a fun one to watch in the preseason.