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2021 NFL Draft: Drafting and grooming the Bills’ future at safety

Is safety a dark horse, or long-term, need?

Ever since signing Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer in the 2017 offseason, the Buffalo Bills have sported one of the best safety duos in the league. Both players were revelations in defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier’s system. Most importantly, both were signed to inexpensive deals and in their respective primes. Ever since, Hyde and Poyer have become the respective linchpins of the Bills’ defense.

However, with both players turning 30 years old and on their second contracts with the team, it’s around the time to understand the realities and inevitabilities of life in the NFL, and begin grooming their future replacements. Currently, Buffalo has a couple young players at the position—Siran Neal and Jaquan Johnson—but both have seen little playing time on the field and Neal is set to enter free agency next year. That situation may cause the team to turn to the draft as a fountain for new blood at the safety position. While it’s not expected that general manager Brandon Beane will draft a safety in the first two rounds, trolling the later rounds seems as though it could be a likely outcome.

So what mid- to late-round prospects will Buffalo be looking at? The exact qualities shared by Poyer and Hyde, including versatility, strong coverage ability and intelligence. Here are five prospects who might qualify.

Reed Blankenship, Middle Tennessee State

A member of Bruce Feldman’s annual ‘Freaks’ list, Blankenship demonstrates strong explosive burst when allowed to drive on the ball in zone coverages from either passing situations or run downs. Recently timed in the 4.5 range at the Blue Raiders’ pro day, Blankenship is more than willing to stick his nose in and bring down runners when blitzing—an extremely necessary quality to have in Buffalo’s defensive backfield. The smaller level of competition, some limited experience in different roles, and injury concerns will keep him from being drafted higher than the fourth round, but he has the look of a starter in the NFL.

Tyree Gillespie, Missouri

The word is starting to get out on Gillespie as Missouri’s true star on defense, even over linebacker Nick Bolton. On tape, he was nominally a box safety for the Tigers and a productive one at that, but he also has 4.40 speed to match receivers and tight ends in the middle of the field. His best fit as a defender is one where he can crash down hard against the run and line up against tight ends in man coverage against the pass. If that sounds like Jordan Poyer to you, you’re correct.

Darrick Forrest, Cincinnati

Most would point to Forrest’s teammate James Wiggins as a sleeper safety prospect, however there are reasons to consider the former as well. Fresh of his pro day, Forrest can clearly run—considering his ~4.40 40-yard dash time. You throw in similar exemplary vertical and broad jumps, and his athletic comparison is pretty similar to Micah Hyde. He was also a high-motor, high-tackling machine for the Bearcats’ defense and an all-around leader for the team through four seasons.

Jamar Johnson, Indiana

Similar to a player like Jaquan Johnson, this Jamar Johnson isn’t going to wow you with athletic talent, but he makes up for it on the field with his intelligence, ball skills and ability to read what offenses are trying to accomplish. His game against Ohio State—in which he toyed with quarterback Justin Fields and came down with two interceptions, had a sack and defended a pass—opened scouts’ eyes to what he could be in the NFL as a hybrid defender. His tackling needs work and his short-area quickness and aforementioned long speed is average, but Johnson has a chance to bust into the third, or even second, round.