It’s not often that a positional group headed by a two-time Pro Bowl player with a First-Team All-Pro nod to his name can be considered one in need of improvement, but that’s exactly where the Buffalo Bills find themselves with their cornerback group. While they have an obvious star atop the depth chart, what remains is a litany of question marks.
Buffalo has acquired band-aids instead of long-term solutions across from their top corner over each of the last four seasons, and some have been far more effective than others. In an offseason with a tight salary cap, limited resources mean more creative roster filling for general manager Brandon Beane.
In our latest look at the State of the Buffalo Bills roster, we profile the cornerback group.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; depending on your perspective, it’s the last year of his rookie deal or the first year of his contract extension...but the most important part is that he’s signed through the 2025 season (for 2021, he carries a $14.050 million cap hit and a $33.850 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 1/16/2022)
Playing time: 14 games (14 starts), 821 defensive snaps (76.66 percent), 35 ST snaps (7.8 percent)
Key statistics: 57 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss (TFL), three quarterback hits, three interceptions (INTs), 11 pass breakups, one forced fumble (FF), two fumble recoveries
Buffalo’s top corner is one of the best young players in the NFL at any position, and he’s easily among the game’s best corners overall. White has the ability to play man coverage on speedy receivers and bulky tight ends, and he excels in both man and zone coverages. He is the perfect corner for head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier’s defense, as he helps the team to disguise its coverage masterfully. The only thing that White could do to help this team that he hasn’t is to clone himself, and then pay that clone a fraction of what he’s worth. White was the first draft choice of the new regime, and he has not disappointed. The Bills rewarded him with a fat contract extension last year, and White is the highest-paid player on the team—for now.
Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 33 (34 on 12/15/2021)
Playing time: Nine games (three starts), 312 defensive (29.13 percent), 22 ST snaps (4.9 percent)
Key statistics: 24 tackles, two TFLs, one INT, four pass breakups, one FF, two fumble recoveries
The veteran became the latest in a series of zone-heavy, limited athletic players to line up across from White in Buffalo’s defense. For what he was asked to do, Norman was more than serviceable; however, his inability to stick with average receivers in man coverage limited what Buffalo could do in terms of coverage on the back end. When a team knows you’re playing zone, it’s a lot easier to beat it, and when a team doesn’t need to fear a player in man coverage, it makes that easier to beat, as well. Norman couldn’t come close to regaining his All-Pro form this season, and he’ll probably be elsewhere in 2021.
Contract status for 2021: Restricted free agent (Original-round tender approximately $2.133 million)
Age: 25 (26 on 6/12/2021)
Playing time: 12 games (12 starts), 587 defensive (54.81 percent), 41 ST snaps (4.13 percent)
Key statistics: 48 tackles, one TFL, one quarterback hit, eight pass breakups, two INTs
The undrafted free agent find has surpassed the lowly expectations of a player of his pedigree to become a reliable, if unspectacular, starter at the professional level. Wallace is prone to long periods of torment, as we saw in Week 2 when Ryan Fitzpatrick abused him no matter what man Wallace lined up against, but he’s also capable of closing quite well in zone coverage. Wallace is a nice piece to have in the secondary, and he presents a real dilemma for the team: do they pay him the RFA tender of $2.133 million, or do they try to negotiate a different deal with him like they did last year with Isaiah McKenzie? While they could let him walk away, I don’t anticipate that being something the team would want. They’ll need to add competition—preferably in the form of someone who can play some strong man coverage, a particular weakness of Wallace’s—but they should try to retain their three-year starter, as well.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of rookie contract ($1,081,517 cap hit; $161,517 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 7/27/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (11 starts), 788 defensive snaps (73.58 percent), 164 ST snaps (36.53 percent)
Key statistics: 94 tackles, five TFLs, three quarterback hits, one sack, seven pass breakups, one INT, one touchdown (TD), one forced fumble
Johnson sure is a roller coaster. Sometimes, it looks like he’s just a hair slow on routes over the middle, and then sometimes, he totally changes the game by returning an interception for a touchdown in the biggest moments like he did against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. When the Bills moved Tre’Davious White to Travis Kelce in the AFC Championship Game, they tried to have Johnson stick with Tyreek Hill man to man, which did not work at all. That’s not necessarily a knock on Johnson, as most corners would struggle with that assignment, so asking their nickel corner to guard one of the league’s best wideouts was a mismatch Kansas City gleefully exploited. Johnson is a good tackler, a solid cover guy, and a tenacious player to have in the slot.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of rookie contract ($991,504 cap hit; $71,504 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 8/4/2021)
Playing time: 16 games, 258 ST snaps (57.46 percent), 97 defensive snaps (9.06 percent)
Key statistics: 13 tackles, one quarterback hit, one pass breakups
When Buffalo drafted two secondary players back-to-back in the 2018 NFL Draft, it looked like they’d taken a slot corner (Johnson) and a safety (Neal). However, it turns out that they really took two inside corners, as Neal officially made the transition full-time from a hybrid safety/corner to a cornerback this season. Most of his snaps, however, come on special teams, and it’s hard to imagine Neal remaining with the team beyond his rookie contract. If the Bills have a choice between re-signing Johnson and Neal, I assume they’ll go for the bigger piece on defense than they will the special teams stalwart. Neal has not been able to earn much time on defense, playing in almost 100 fewer snaps this year than he did in 2019 even though he was healthy all season long.
Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/26/2021 ($780,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 11/29/2021)
Playing time: Five games (two starts), 193 defensive snaps (18.02 percent), 41 ST snaps (9.13 percent)
Key statistics: 15 tackles, one TFL, one fumble recovery, five pass breakups, one INT
Buffalo’s final 2020 draft choice had a solid rookie season as a member of the team’s practice squad. Thanks to the rules put in place to account for COVID-19, the Bills were able to elevate Jackson to the active roster on game day multiple times, and he ended up making two starts. He even intercepted a pass in the team’s Week 7 victory over the New York Jets, a play right before halftime that swung momentum in the Bills’ favor. Jackson was tied for fourth on Buffalo’s roster in pass breakups. He’s a tenacious, physical player for a smaller guy, and he has earned the right to compete for an expanded role in 2021.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($780,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 4/13/2021)
Playing time: Five games (two starts), 75 defensive snaps (7 percent), 16 ST snaps (3.56 percent)
Key statistics: Seven tackles
Lewis made his NFL debut this season, and while he began the year on the practice squad, the Bills signed him to the 53-man roster in the early part of the season. He landed on injured reserve with a wrist injury prior to that Week 7 contest mentioned above. Lewis is a UB product who’s been with the Bills for two seasons, and I imagine he’s a guy they’ll want to keep in the fold as a practice squad player at least.
Orlando “Duke” Thomas
Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 26 (27 on 5/21/2021)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Thomas signed to Buffalo’s practice squad on New Year’s Day. The Bills were his seventh NFL team since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2016; he’s also made stops in the CFL (with the Toronto Argonauts), and the AAF (with the San Antonio Commanders). Thomas was not offered a reserve/future contract, and Buffalo released him from their practice squad on January 23.
The Bills have a bona fide star in Tre’Davious White, a good-not-great slot corner in Taron Johnson, and a whole lot of question marks after that. I was really impressed with Jackson, and at the risk of sounding ridiculous, would have preferred to see him on the field as the season wore on more than a veteran like Norman, whose limitations in man coverage made him a liability in two ways; his presence helped the offense assume the style of coverage the Bills were playing, and if they guessed wrong, they could count on Norman’s man beating him one-on-one. The Bills have a decision to make regarding Levi Wallace, and while I’d like to see the team retain him, it would behoove them to try to find a player either in the draft or free agency who can play some man coverage. If the Bills went into camp with a depth chart including White, Wallace, Johnson, Jackson, Neal, and a mid-round draft choice who can play both man and zone, they’d be in pretty good shape. If the team decides to let Wallace and Norman walk and make the kind of free-agent signing they have at this position of late—an older player with limited athleticism—then my guess would be that they’d target someone like Richard Sherman. That’s not what I’d prefer, because even if Sherman is bound for Canton, his best days are behind him. Give me someone like a Kelvin Joseph later in the draft who can develop behind the players Buffalo already has or another free agent (perhaps old friend Kevin Johnson?) who is a younger, more versatile option. Regardless of the decision, one thing is clear: The team has a lot of options here, but they’re going to need to make some moves.