The Buffalo Bills have one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Since 2017, head coach Sean McDermott has been able to trust that the back end of his defense would be manned by solid safeties, a must in his zone-heavy scheme. The Bills have been able to limit explosive plays through the air as a result.
While Buffalo’s two starting safeties are both under contract for the 2021 season, half of the duo is entering the final year of his deal. The Bills are in need of some depth at the safety spot as well as some versatility, perhaps in the form of a hybrid linebacker-slot corner type who can stick with tight ends in man coverage while also patrolling zone coverages with ease.
In our latest look at the State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, we profile the safety position.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; first year of two-year extension ($7.875 million cap hit; $2 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 4/25/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 953 defensive snaps (88.98 percent), 156 ST snaps (34.74 percent), two offensive snaps (.18 percent)
Key statistics: 124 tackles, four quarterback hits, four tackles-for-loss (TFLs), two sacks, five pass breakups (PBUs), two forced fumbles (FF), two interceptions (INTs)
It’s almost comical at this point how overlooked Poyer is in the NFL. The former seventh-round draft choice has developed into an elite player in Buffalo, and he led the team in tackles this season. He was fifth in the league in solo tackles this year and 12th overall. And while he did allow 73 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed this year, he allowed a paltry 7.8 yards per reception. Poyer is one of the league’s best safeties, and is arguably among the most underrated players in the league.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of five-year contract ($6,718,750 cap hit; $1.6 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 30 (31 on 12/31/2021)
Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 881 defensive snaps (82.26 percent), 64 ST snaps (14.25 percent)
Key statistics: 70 tackles, one TFL, five PBUs, one INT
The veteran had another quietly solid season as the more frequent deep safety in Buffalo’s setup. Hyde came to the Bills via the Green Bay Packers as a jack-of-all-trades type, but he’s settled into his role as one-half of Buffalo’s elite safety duo. Hyde is a sure tackler who can handle man coverage duties when necessary, but where he really excels is as the deep safety in zone coverage.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($896,085 cap hit; $92,170 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 11/13/2021)
Playing time: 14 games, 249 ST snaps (55.46 percent), 49 defensive snaps (4.58 percent)
Key statistics: Four tackles
Johnson has seen plenty of time on special teams in his two years, but he hasn’t been able to unseat veteran Dean Marlowe as the third safety. Perhaps he’ll finally have the chance if Buffalo allows Marlowe to leave via free agency.
Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 28 (29 on 7/25/2021)
Playing time: 15 games (4 starts), 230 defensive snaps (21.48 percent), 196 ST snaps (43.65 percent)
Key statistics: 22 tackles, two quarterback hits, two TFLs, 1.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, three PBUs, two INTs
The veteran had the best year of his career this season, making some plays on the ball and generally doing a good job as the team’s third safety. In a defense with two studs ahead of him, there haven’t been many opportunities for growth, but Marlowe knows the McDermott defense inside and out, having followed his coach from the Carolina Panthers up to Buffalo as so many others have. Both of Marlowe’s interceptions came against the Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa in Week 17.
Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/26/2021 ($660,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 11/19/2021)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Thomas spent the 2020 season on Buffalo’s practice squad. He signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent last May. Buffalo elevated him to the game day roster twice, but he was a healthy scratch each time.
Buffalo has but one decision here—to sign Marlowe or not to sign their veteran reserve? I love the way he plays and his fit in this defense, so I hope the Bills can bring him back on a two-year deal for a lower cap hit. The second year is important, as Hyde’s contract expires at the end of the year, so if they can’t come to terms on an extension with him, that would give the Bills a veteran option to plug right into the defense while they prepared a rookie or a younger player like Thomas from their practice squad. At this point, it looks like Johnson is merely a special teams player, though it will be interesting to see if the team gives him more chances on defense. Perhaps a full training camp and some semblance of a normal preseason could help him to earn more time. The Bills could also choose to add a player through the draft here as a building block for the future. The top of the depth chart is set for 2021, but what lies ahead we have no way of knowing.