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ESPN’s list of breakout players includes two Buffalo defenders

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The top-25 breakout-candidates list features two Bills corners

NFL training camps have begun, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of prime prognostication season. This week, it’s ESPN and Football Outsider’s Rivers McCown dipping his respective toe in the predicting water, with a story on the NFL’s top 25 ‘prospects’. That is, a list of those younger players with potential to “breakout” in the 2019 season.

To qualify for the list, a player needed to:

  • be drafted in Round 3-Round 7 or UDFA
  • have entered the NFL between 2016-2018
  • have fewer than 500 snaps played
  • have not signed a contract extension
  • be age 26 or younger

Two Buffalo Bills defenders managed to appear on the list—cornerbacks Taron Johnson and Levi Wallace—while defensive tackle Harrison Phillips was an honorable mention.

Here’s what McCown had to say about including both corners:

16. Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills

Age: 24 | Draft: Undrafted in 2018

Defensive snaps in 2018: 415

An interesting player because of his background, Wallace somehow managed to not draw enough attention to get drafted. Imagine somebody dominant at football. Now imagine that they’re dominant at football on the highest stage of college football. They get invited to all-star games, play well at them, and ... nothing. That’s what happened to Wallace after leading the SEC in pass breakups and interceptions at Alabama. Scouts criticized his 6-foot frame and were not thrilled with his 4.63 40-yard dash at the combine. Wallace, a former walk-on, also didn’t start at Alabama until his senior season.

In his first season with the Bills, injuries put Wallace into the lineup and he performed well, breaking up three passes and allowing just 4.6 yards per pass. To be fair to scouts, they did say he’d struggle with stronger, taller NFL wideouts because of his frame. Wallace did not face many of them. His only game against top-notch competition was when Buffalo went to New England in Week 16. The best receiver he played against was Kenny Golladay, and Golladay torched him on a broken play. The rest of the schedule he defended against was full of players like Keelan Cole, Donte Moncrief and that type of receiver.

That doesn’t mean that Wallace can’t be an effective corner -- he showed he could be one, and his background is intriguing. But the lack of top-tier athleticism and the weak schedule could be something that indicates how well he performed was a bit of a fluke. Either way, the instincts should keep Wallace as a capable NFL player.

20. Taron Johnson, CB, Buffalo Bills

Age: 22 | Draft: Fourth-round pick in 2018

Defensive snaps in 2018: 405

Slot cornerback is not a position where the results have a strong year-to-year correlation. Kendall Fuller, for example, was one of the best slots in the business in 2017, and in 2018, after being a big part of the Alex Smith trade, he dropped to 47th among qualifying corners in success rate. But it’s worth recognizing how great Johnson was for the Bills last season. Johnson finished with a 67% success rate on his 24 targets. He picked off Marcus Mariota and sacked Aaron Rodgers.

Johnson is a pure slot cornerback, checking in at 5-11, 192 pounds at the NFL combine. Coming out of tiny Weber State, where he starred starting as a true freshman, Johnson plays bigger than his size in the running game. He isn’t afraid to get physical and in fact can often get downright grabby in coverage. There’s not a lot of upside in Johnson -- he already is all that he can be -- but good slot cornerbacks are valuable in the current NFL.

Coming into this year, Johnson appears to be the favorite for slot snaps and Buffalo has only signed old or injury-prone depth at corner, so he should get a chance to demonstrate his talent again.

Time will tell if both players truly have a 2019 season good enough to turn heads. Wallace is attempting to fend off newcomers Kevin Johnson and E.J. Gaines who have their eyes on his starting role opposite Tre’Davious White. As for Taron Johnson, he had offseason shoulder surgery and will have to be careful given his physical nature.