The Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s strongest secondary groupings. The team struggled against the pass in 2017, which was the first year head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier arrived. Since that initial season, they have steadily improved as the team’s “brain trust”—which includes general manager Brandon Beane—has had time to add players to the system.
In 2017, Buffalo was ranked No. 20 in total passing yards against. In 2018, they were No. 1, and this year, they were No. 4 overall. As players have become more comfortable in the system, the team has thrived while defending the pass. Much of that success is due to an incredibly strong safety tandem.
When the Bills hired McDermott, two of the team’s first free-agent moves involved signing a pair of safeties. That duo came with some question marks, but since arriving in Buffalo, each player has been fantastic. With two outstanding, versatile safeties in the fold, the Bills have been able to disguise their intentions pre-snap while trusting their playmakers to do what they do best.
In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we profile the safeties—a deep group that stands among the best in the NFL.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of four-year deal ($4,075,000 cap hit; $875,000 dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 28 (29 on 4/25/2020)
Playing time: 16 games, 16 starts, 977 defensive snaps (94.3%), 132 ST snaps (31.9%), 7 offensive snaps (.65%)
Key statistics: 104 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 sack, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 3 pass breakups, 2 interceptions
The second of Buffalo’s two free-agent safeties signed in 2017 has actually been the better of the two for the duration of his time in Orchard Park. Poyer’s versatility makes him a great chess piece for McDermott and Frazier, and they use him in a variety of ways. Poyer is used as an edge blitzer, an in-the-box defender, a deep safety, a “robber” in short zones—truly, he can do everything asked of him. His current contract ties him for 26th in the league among all safeties; he’s tied with Jaquiski Tartt of the San Francisco 49ers. Poyer has earned a huge payday and, as he’s one of the Bills’ leaders, I certainly hope it comes from Buffalo.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; fourth year of five-year deal ($6.7 million cap hit; $3.2 million dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 12/31/2020)
Playing time: 16 games, 16 starts, 969 defensive snaps (93.5%), 62 ST snaps (15%)
Key statistics: 72 tackles, 1 tackles for loss, 1 QB hit, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups, 1 interception
While Poyer has been the top dog in Buffalo’s safety rotation, that doesn’t discount just how good his counterpart, Hyde, has been. Another versatile player, Hyde can do everything Poyer can do, which makes the Bills’ defense that much harder to diagnose. Since their safeties are so interchangeable, it allows the team to disguise its intentions without putting themselves in compromising positions. Hyde has two years left on the five-year contract he signed in 2017, so an extension probably won’t come to him until at least 2021.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; third year of rookie deal ($731,504 cap hit; $143,008 dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 8/4/2020)
Playing time: 15 games, 1 start, 174 defensive snaps (16.8%), 242 ST snaps (58.5%)
Key statistics: 27 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble
The second-year man had a much better season than he did as a rookie, mostly due to opportunity. He was essentially a special-teams player only in his rookie year, but he served as the “big nickel” this season—a role in which he showed great comfort throughout the year. He’s yet another late-round find on defense who was drafted to fill a very particular role, and he has done so excellently. His development will be exciting to watch as he continues to play out his rookie contract.
Contract status for 2020: Restricted free agent; original round tender projected to be approximately $2.1 million, per Over the Cap
Age: 27 (28 on 7/25/2020)
Playing time: 9 games, 2 starts, 108 defensive snaps (10.4%), 90 ST snaps (21.7%)
Key statistics: 9 tackles, 1 pass breakup
As a restricted free agent, the Bills have the right to tender Marlowe an offer at the amount listed above; however, since he entered the league as an undrafted free agent, Buffalo would be doing so in order to receive no compensation if Marlowe chose to sign elsewhere. With that in mind, it seems foolish for the team to tag Marlowe, as they should instead offer him a contract at a more reasonable amount given his contributions to the club. I believe Marlowe to be a very good reserve safety, but a $2.1 million cap hit is unnecessary given the talent the Bills have at the position.
Contract status for 2020: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 31 (32 on 4/1/2020)
Playing time: 14 games, 0 starts, 70 defensive snaps (6.8%), 210 ST snaps (50.7%)
Key statistics: 2 tackles, 1 tackle for loss
Coleman was one of Buffalo’s top special-teams players in terms of snaps, and as a veteran with great knowledge of Sean McDermott’s defense, he served a valuable purpose this year. The Bills added him late in the summer when former safety Rafael Bush announced his retirement last July. Coleman probably won’t be back next year, but if the Bills find that they need depth entering training camp, Coleman remains a free agent at that time, and he were to accept a deal for the veteran’s minimum, then I could see the team wanting him to return.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of rookie deal ($631,085 cap hit; $138,255 dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 11/6/2020)
Playing time: 13 games, 0 starts, 53 defensive snaps (5.1%), 181 ST snaps (43.7%)
Key statistics: 3 tackles
The exciting young safety had next to no opportunities to make an impact on defense, but he looked good in his one game’s worth of action against the New York Jets in the regular-season finale. Johnson instead contributed on special teams covering kicks. He has great athleticism and, long term, may be someone the Bills are looking at to replace one of the top safeties in the rotation. However, that wouldn’t be until at least 2021—and hopefully, it’s not even until later than that.
Re-signing Poyer, perhaps as early as this winter, needs to be a priority for the Bills. Of all the veterans in need of contract extensions, I’d wager that Poyer is the most valuable to the team. Sure, there are some guys whose rookie deals are coming to an end (Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano, for example), but as a veteran who signed in Buffalo while the team was still in the midst of a 17-year playoff drought, he deserves to be rewarded for his solid play and his role in changing the culture in Orchard Park.
If Buffalo goes into the draft with a depth chart topped by Poyer and Hyde, leaving Johnson and Neal as the backups, then it would be wise to think about drafting a safety on day three of the NFL Draft. A better decision would be to sign a veteran free agent as insurance. I wouldn’t be mad if the team re-signed both Coleman and Marlowe, leaving this group exactly as it was this year heading into the 2020 NFL season.