If there is one positional group that Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott has shown a particular talent for finding solid players, it’s within the defensive secondary. The head coach is a former collegiate safety, having played the position for four years at William and Mary in the mid ’90s.
McDermott and his counterpart in personnel, general manager Brandon Beane, have revamped the Bills’ secondary over the last three offseasons—completely turning the positional group over from the team’s final year with former head coach Rex Ryan. Not only have they revamped the group, but they have done so by stockpiling young talent. Not one corner under contract next season will be older than 27 when the season begins.
In our latest look at the state of the Bills roster, we look at the cornerbacks. It’s a group that has some talented young players, but as the saying goes, you can never have too many cornerbacks.
Contract status for 2019: Signed; $2,752,121 million cap hit ($4,121,869 million dead cap if cut)
2018 Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 960 snaps (94.67% of defensive total), 88 ST snaps (20.05%)
Key 2018 statistics: 54 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defended
The unquestioned CB1 on the roster had some struggles last season, but he turned in a solid year overall. After a rookie year where he was rarely beaten, save for one game against the Cincinnati Bengals where A.J. Green abused White to the tune of seven catches, 189 yards, and one touchdown, White was nearly perfect. He was the second-highest graded corner by Pro Football Focus, earning a 92 overall grade. In his follow-up season, White was just as solid for most of the season, but he was a bit more prone to giving up long pass plays—passes he typically broke up the year prior. This could be due in part to Buffalo rolling coverage to the other side of the field, as the team struggled to find an adequate second corner for the majority of the season. White’s PFF grade dipped precipitously in 2018, as he only graded out at a 61 for the year. While that seems harsh, it’s fair given the fact White did not have as strong a second year as he did in his rookie campaign. He will once again be relied upon to shadow the opposing team’s top receivers for Buffalo in 2019.
Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
Age: 23 (24 on 6/12/19)
2018 playing time: 7 games (7 starts), 415 snaps (40.93% of defensive total), 47 ST snaps (10.71%)
Key 2018 statistics: 37 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hit, 3 passes defended
As I mentioned above, CB2 was a black hole of sorts for the first two months of the season. Vontae Davis was a healthy scratch in a Week 1 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and then he retired at halftime of the Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Bills started Phillip Gaines, then released him, and they also started Ryan Lewis before settling on the undrafted rookie Wallace, who started at Alabama last season. In coverage, Wallace was a revelation, locking down a position that was in dire need of help for most of the season. PFF graded him at an 83.5 for the year, fourth-best among all corners in 2018. While he looked a bit weak in run support and tackling, he was excellent in coverage. Another year of growth and weight training will help to add to his slender frame (6’ and 179 pounds), which should help him to be better on the edge. The Bills found a diamond in the rough in Wallace.
Contract status for 2019: Signed; $731,517 cap hit ($484,551 dead cap if cut)
Age: 22 (23 on 7/27/19)
2018 playing time: 11 games (2 starts), 405 snaps (39.94% of defensive total), 60 ST snaps (13.67%)
Key 2018 statistics: 42 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 interception, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack
Another excellent rookie, the fourth-round draft choice out of Weber State was the Bills’ starting slot corner from day one. Johnson injured his shoulder in the first game of the season, but he gutted through the injury and did not go on injured reserve until December. Johnson’s 69.6 PFF grade was 45th among all corners. He showed himself to be a willing tackler, never shying away from contact, while also doing a tremendous job covering slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs. The Bills found a good one in this small-school prospect.
Contract status for 2019: Signed; $720,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
Age: Turned 26 on 3/31/19
2018 playing time: 4 games (0 starts), 0 defensive snaps, 47 ST snaps (10.71%)
Key 2018 statistics: 2 tackles
The Bills added Rice to the practice squad on November 13; prior to that, Rice was with the Cleveland Browns. He appeared in eight games with the Browns, tallying three tackles, a pass defended, and an interception. With the Bills, he only appeared on special teams, making two tackles. He’s a depth signing for now.
Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
Age: Turned 25 on 4/15/19
2018 playing time: 7 games (3 starts), 150 snaps (14.79% of defensive total), 45 ST snaps (10.25%)
Key 2018 statistics: 15 tackles, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
Lewis was added to the Bills’ roster on September 2 after he was cut by the New England Patriots at the end of the preseason. Buffalo released Lewis ten days later, adding him to the practice squad on September 12. He was then promoted to the active roster on September 18, and he started the game against the Minnesota Vikings that week, which Buffalo won 27-6. He started the two subsequent games, as well, but he was benched midway through Buffalo’s Week 5 contest with the Tennessee Titans. After Buffalo started Gaines for a few games, they went with Wallace for the remainder of the season. Lewis was good against Minnesota, and he was fine against the Green Bay Packers in his second start. While he was not playing well against Tennessee, it is interesting that he never had a chance to regain his spot after the game. It will also be interesting to see what transpires in the offseason, namely whether Lewis can maintain his hold on a roster spot or if he will be searching for another team yet again.
Contract status for 2019: Signed to one-year $720,000 deal (0 dead cap)
Age: 26 (27 on 9/24/19)
2018 playing time: 16 games (0 starts), 83 snaps (8.19% of defensive total), 281 ST snaps (64.01%)
Key 2018 statistics: 9 tackles
The special teams gunner filled in on defense a bit this season, mainly in the season finale against the Miami Dolphins after White exited with a head injury. His 281 special teams snaps were second only to linebacker Deon Lacey on Buffalo’s roster, so it’s possible that the coaching staff wants to retain him for that purpose, but with a new special teams coordinator, how much loyalty will there be?
Contract status for 2019: Signed, $1,787,500 ($350,000 dead cap if cut)
Age: Turned 27 on 2/23/19
2018 playing time: 6 games (2 starts), 181 snaps (15.38% of defensive snaps), 30 snaps (6.45% of special teams snaps) for Cleveland Browns
Key 2018 statistics: 1 INT, 3 passes defended, 13 tackles for Cleveland Browns
A former starter for Sean McDermott’s Buffalo Bills, Gaines brings experience but an extensive injury history to the Bills’ secondary, part of the reason he’s been on three different teams in his first five NFL seasons. He’s one of the reasons we say things like “you can’t have too many capable cornerbacks”. Still, his path to the roster as either starting CB2 or a depth option is pretty clear, and while he has been running third in the the CB2 battle, that could change when the pads go on.
Contract status for 2019: Signed, $2,718,750 ($700,000 dead cap if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 8/5/19)
2018 playing time: 1 game (1 start), 65 snaps (6.08% of defensive total) for Houston Texans
Key 2018 statistics: four tackles for Houston Texans
He’s played in just 19 games over the past three seasons, dealing with a variety of injuries, most notably a concussion that cost him his 2018 season. With almost a full year of recovery time, we hope his head is right in many more ways than one. He’s been playing well in the spring, and the former first-rounder has all the talent, but can he stay healthy enough to win the job? Even if he does, having quality depth will be a major help.
Contract status for 2019: Signed, $495,000 ($0 guaranteed)
Age: Turned 22 on 4/13/19
2018 playing time: 12 games for University at Buffalo
Key 2018 statistics: 32 tackles, 3 INTs, 6 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery for University at Buffalo
With all the starting experience in front of him, Lewis has a long way to the Bills’ active roster. The UDFA is more likely to be a practice squad candidate than a 53-man roster candidate.
The Bills have a stud in Tre’Davious White as their CB1, who is going to follow the other team’s top WR like a shadow. At CB2, they have three players that could end up with the role in Wallace, Johnson, and Gaines (and that’s the order they’ve been rotating in the spring and summer so far). Depth is a great problem to have and in a passing league - say it again - you can’t have enough corners.
That CB2 battle would usually be one of the more intriguing discussions, and we will certainly be covering it, but the offensive line uncertainty and Josh Allen entering year 2 and the WR shake up and even Ed Oliver’s arrival have overshadowed it to date. Plus, I think a lot of folks will be fine with whoever comes out on top.
The Bills only kept five cornerbacks heading into the 2018 season, but that bit them several times. It wouldn’t surprise me to see six make the final roster; White, Wallace, Kevin Johnson, Gaines, Taron Johnson, and a special teamer.