The Buffalo Bills have a decision to make at cornerback. While Tre’Davious White’s name is etched into the starting lineup in stone for the time being, the starting corner across from him is very much a position up for grabs. Levi Wallace began the year by taking nearly all of the snaps, but by the end of the season, he was ceding more time to veteran Kevin Johnson.
With the potential for Johnson to leave via free agency this offseason, it’s possible that the Bills will look to sign another veteran either to serve as a platoon for Wallace or to replace him entirely. Looking at the free-agent list, the pickings are slim both in terms of good fits for Buffalo’s defense and in terms of good financial fits for the franchise overall.
Here are some names to watch if the Bills should attempt to sign a free-agent corner this spring.
It wouldn’t be a free-agent analysis without a former Carolina Panthers player, and this is yet another example of the fit and the player making plenty of sense. Bradberry was a second-round pick for the Panthers in 2016—the final year that Bills head coach Sean McDermott was Carolina’s defensive coordinator. The 6’1” corner slotted in immediately as a starter, playing 799 defensive snaps as a rookie in 13 games, all of which were starts. Bradberry had 59 tackles, ten pass breakups, and two interceptions that year in McDermott’s defense. He’s coming off a 2019 season where he only allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59.8% of the 97 passes thrown his way. He allowed only one touchdown this year after allowing six in 2018. If the Bills want to find a physical, long-term solution at CB2, Bradberry would be a good choice, but he could command more than $10 million per season.
While Worley played for the Oakland Raiders last season, he entered the NFL with—you guessed it—Carolina in 2016, as he was drafted in the third round of the same draft in which the Panthers snagged Bradberry. Like his fellow draft classmate, Worley slotted in as a near-immediate starter—starting 11 of 16 games as a rookie with McDermott as his defensive coordinator. He made 88 tackles in that 2016 season, adding one sack, one interception, and nine pass breakups to his stat line. He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018, and the Eagles subsequently released him after an altercation with police. From there, Worley landed with the Oakland Raiders, where he played for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Last year, Worley made 58 tackles, eight pass deflections, one fumble recovery, and one interception, all while allowing just a 53.5% completion rate on 88 targets. He did allow five touchdown catches, however. At just 25 years old, Worley would be another potential long-term investment in a big (6’1” and 215 lbs) player at the position.
The veteran had a solid season for the Cincinnati Bengals, especially considering that he began it on the PUP list due to a knee injury. He played in three-quarters of the Bengals’ defensive snaps in eight of his nine games, combining for 37 tackles and five pass breakups. In coverage, he was only targeted 35 times in nine games, but he only allowed 17 completions and one touchdown on the year. He fits the profile of the kind of corner Buffalo tends to sign in free agency—a veteran who has under-performed thanks to injury who may be in need of a change of scenery. If Buffalo can’t re-sign Johnson, they could do worse than offering Dennard a one-year deal.
Maybe you’re sensing a theme here, but I think the Bills need to add some size in the defensive secondary, as none of their current defensive backs are taller than 6’ even, and none of their current corners weigh in at more than 192 lbs. Canady would add a tad more height at nearly the same weight, as he stands at 6’1” and 193 lbs. He split the 2019 season between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets, and he was fairly consistent with both squads. He allowed 63.3% of the 49 targets he defended to be completed, and he did not allow a touchdown in 13 games. He turns 26 in May, and the former sixth-round pick is someone who could be on the upswing of his career.
Old friend alert! Cockrell was a fourth-round draft choice of the Doug Marrone-era Bills in 2014. He was released the following year by the Rex Ryan regime, and he immediately went on to play some productive football with the Pittsburgh Steelers. From 2015-2017, Cockrell broke up 36 passes and made five interceptions, all while combining for 156 tackles. In 2018, a broken left tibia and fibula caused him to miss the entire season for his new team, the Carolina Panthers, but he returned at full strength this past season. Cockrell played in 14 games, starting 11 of them, and he intercepted two passes and had eight pass breakups. He’s a physical corner who excels in man coverage, so he would make a solid complement to Wallace, who is a better zone defender.
The Bills have done well with players who were drafted in the first round who flamed out with their former teams, and perhaps no corner on the free-agent market fits that description better than Burns. Selected No. 25 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Burns has been a bona fide bust as a pro, and in 2019, he only played on 66 defensive snaps—66 of which came in a Week 6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. In the last two seasons, Burns has allowed 20 completions on 29 targets for a total of 341 yards and six touchdowns, which is just abysmal. None of this is a good sell-job on Burns the football player, but Burns the athlete was special enough to be drafted in the first round. As a rookie, he made an immediate impact, combining for 65 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and three interceptions. He fell out of favor after his second year in the league. A change of scenery could be to his benefit, and the Bills could almost definitely sign him at a discount.
For only the second time in his career, Johnson was able to play in all of his team’s games. The oft-injured corner has struggled to stay on the field during his NFL career, but he was quite healthy for the Bills this year, and he was fairly productive, as well. Whenever the Bills wanted to play more man-to-man coverage, they rotated Johnson in more heavily for Levi Wallace, and he responded by making 32 tackles and breaking up five passes. Those are modest numbers, but Johnson only played more than 50% of the team’s defensive snaps in two games—against the Philadelphia Eagles and in the Wild Card game against the Houston Texans (when Wallace was out with an injury). Johnson only allowed a 59% completion rate on 44 targets this year, and he did not allow a touchdown. If the contract is right, perhaps keeping the player they already know fits the defense would best fit the Bills.
Which free agent cornerback should Buffalo sign to replace Kevin Johnson?
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Kevin Johnson himself
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- All-22 analysis of Kevin Johnson’s 2019 season
- All-22 analysis of Levi Wallace’s 2019 season
- Contract projection shows a pay increase for Kevin Johnson in 2020
- Buffalo Bills don’t have enough cornerbacks for 2020 offseason
- Value free agent options limited at cornerback
- 2020 NFL Draft prospects could be starters or depth
- Opinion: Bills would be fine with Wallace as CB2, but they’ll need to add depth or re-sign Johnson