While the Buffalo Bills have an obvious star atop the cornerback 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, they didn’t even add a band aid option and are instead relying on young players.
In our last look at the State of the Buffalo Bills roster, we profile the cornerback group.
Contract status for 2021: Signed multi-year deal last offseason, restructured this offseason ($6.8 million cap hit, $31 million dead cap)
Age: Turned 26 on 1/16/2021
2020 Playing time: 14 games (14 starts), 821 defensive snaps (76.66 percent), 35 ST snaps (7.8 percent)
Key 2020 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.
Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $1.7 million contract this offseason ($1 million dead cap)
Age: Turned 26 on 6/12/2021
2020 Playing time: 12 games (12 starts), 587 defensive (54.81 percent), 41 ST snaps (4.13 percent)
Key 2020 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 signed this offseason for less than the Restricted Free Agent tender. Right now, he’s penciled in as the CB2, but there will be competition, something he’s fought off before.
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)
2020 Playing time: 16 games (11 starts), 788 defensive snaps (73.58 percent), 164 ST snaps (36.53 percent)
Key 2020 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)
2020 Playing time: 16 games, 258 ST snaps (57.46 percent), 97 defensive snaps (9.06 percent)
Key 2020 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 last 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. He’s going to be Wallace’s primary competition at CB2.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($780,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: Turned 24 on 4/13/2021
2020 Playing time: Five games (two starts), 75 defensive snaps (7 percent), 16 ST snaps (3.56 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: Seven tackles
Lewis made his NFL debut last 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 was inserted into the game to replace a struggling Taron Johnson, but his chance was short-lived when he landed on injured reserve with a wrist injury after roughly a dozen snaps. Lewis is a UB product who’s been with the Bills for two seasons, and he will compete with Johnson for the slot corner role this offseason.
Contract status for 2021: Signed four-year rookie contract this offseason worth up to $3.6 million ($699,061 cap hit, $156,244 dead cap charge)
Age: Turned 21 on 6/20/2021
2020 Playing time: Two games for Wisconsin Badgers
Key 2020 statistics: 6 tackles, 1 pass defended for Badgers
Wildgoose missed most of Wisconsin’s season with an injury, but his solid freshman and sophomore seasons were enough to convince the Bills to take a flyer on him. It’s probably too much to expect him to wrestle away a starting job, but he could make a push for the back end of the roster. At worst, he’s a prime practice squad candidate, even if Buffalo has traditionally kept all their draft picks on the active roster.
Contract status for 2021: Signed a three-year UDFA contract this offseason for $2.46 million ($671,666 cap hit, $70,000 dead cap)
Age: Turned 22 on 3/10/2021
2020 Playing time: Six games for USC Trojans
Key 2020 statistics: 22 tackles, 1 interception, 3 passes defended for USC
The son of Warren G, we hope he makes the roster just so we can yell “Regulators, mount up!” He’s got a big uphill battle to even make it to the practice squad, though, as an undrafted free agent.
Contract status for 2021: Signed three-year rookie contract this offseason worth $2.45 million; ($666,666 cap hit, $80,000 dead cap charge)
Age: Turned 23 on 7/9/2021
2020 Playing time: 11 games for Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Key 2020 statistics: 33 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defended for Notre Dame, 2021 Hula Bowl MVP with 2 INTs
A great pro day and recommendations from former Bills Jeff Burris and Stephon Gilmore got McCloud a shot in the pros. He doesn’t necessarily play as well as his measurables indicate, though, so if he wants to stick around he’s going to have to put it all together. He’s fighting for a practice squad spot.
Players that left this offseason
- Josh Norman (Free agent)
- Orlando “Duke” Thomas (Free agent)
White might be the most talented player on a roster that features several All-Pros. He’s a lockdown cornerback that Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott are building around. Beyond that are a lot of questions and hope. Can Levi Wallace take the next step in his maturation? Can Dane Jackson supplant Wallace as the CB2? Can the pair play well enough for the Bills to get to the Super Bowl?
Inside, Taron Johnson is playing for his next contract this season and will need to take a step toward consistency to hold off Lewis. Lewis actually passed him on the depth chart last year but was forced from the lineup with an injury.
The cornerback position is probably the most-watched position group during training camp this year with two legitimate competitions for starting spots.