The Buffalo Bills are blessed with one of the best corners in the NFL. Combined with a coaching staff that has a penchant for milking the most out of their defensive backs, the Bills have had one of the league’s top-performing secondaries since head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier arrived ahead of the 2017 season.
Last season, we found out what would happen if the Bills were without their All-Pro corner for an extended period of time, and while the results weren’t perfect, they were certainly much better than many of us would have anticipated. Some of Buffalo’s secondary players in the secondary stepped up big-time in that player’s absence, perhaps pricing themselves out of Buffalo’s range to re-sign them in the process.
Today, we look at the corners in our continuing examination of the state of Buffalo’s roster.
Contract status for 2022: Signed; final year of two-year contract($895,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 11/29/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (6 starts), 484 defensive snaps (44.9% of team total), 107 special teams snaps (24.65% of team total)
Key statistics: 41 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 50% completion rate against (20/40), 254 yards allowed
Jackson was thrust into the spotlight once Tre’Davious White tore his ACL, moving into the starting lineup by default across from Levi Wallace. While the potential for disaster was great, Jackson acquitted himself fairly well, helping the Bills to maintain their top defensive ranking through the end of the season. It helped that they faced off against the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, and New York Jets among their final opponents, as the team wasn’t really tested until they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs—two opponents that thoroughly diced their pass defense. Jackson didn’t fall flat in his first extended audition, making a positive case for himself as a starter moving forward.
Contract status for 2022: Signed; first year of three-year contract extension ($4.5 million cap hit; $8.79 million dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 25 (26 on 7/27/2022)
Playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 878 defensive snaps (81.45% of team total), 4 special teams snaps (.92% of team total)
Key statistics: 76 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 7 pass breakups, 1 interception, 55.1% completion rate against (38/69), 396 yards allowed, 2 touchdowns allowed
Buffalo’s base defense is a nickel, so Johnson is a starting player, and he’s definitely performed well since being drafted out of Weber State in 2018. He’s become quite a weapon as a blitzer in addition to his regular duties, as Leslie Frazier brought more secondary pressure this year to give teams different looks. Johnson is sound in run defense, he’s a good tackler overall, and he can play both man and zone coverages equally well. As far as slot players go, he’s among the better players in the league. The Bills are fortunate to have such a well-rounded player, and he’s locked up through his age-28 season.
Contract status for 2022: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($925,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 4/13/2022)
Playing time: 7 games (1 start), 62 special teams snaps (14.29% of team total), 55 defensive snaps (5.1% of team total)
Key statistics: 6 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass breakup, 1 forced fumble, 20% completion rate against (1/5), 4 yards allowed
Lewis signed to the active roster in November after serving as a practice-squad callup multiple times over the last few years. He’s a solid insurance policy for Johnson, and he even displaced Johnson momentarily in the starting lineup during the 2020 season. If Johnson were to be injured, Buffalo could do much worse than Lewis.
Contract status for 2022: Signed three-year contract extension on 2/23/2022; total value upwards of $10.9 million per Tom Pelissero (cap hit not yet known)
Age: 27 (28 on 8/4/2022)
Playing time: 17 games, 287 special teams snaps (66.13% of team total), 153 defensive snaps (14.19% of team total)
Key statistics: 23 tackles, 13 special teams tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 50% completion rate allowed (3/6), 13 yards allowed
After shifting from a hybrid safety/corner role to merely a role as a corner, Neal has worked in the slot and as a special teams player over the last two years, with the latter role far outweighing the former in terms of importance and overall performance. Neal was tied for 11th in total special teams tackles last season, and he is an integral part of what Buffalo does in that phase of the game. In my initial draft, I called Neal an under-the-radar priority for Buffalo to re-sign, and they proved me correct by signing him before he could even hit the free-agent market. Neal is an excellent gunner on punt coverages, and with some possible cap casualties on special teams at the linebacker level, it’s important that they were able to retain one of their most important players in the game’s third phase.
Contract status for 2022: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 26 (27 on 6/12/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 994 defensive snaps (92.21% of team total), 21 special teams snaps (4.84% of team total)
Key statistics: 58 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 10 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery,58% completion rate allowed (47/81), 470 yards allowed, 2 touchdowns allowed
I’ve been on the “Wallace needs to be replaced” train for the majority of his career, so I was blown away by his performance this year. Serving as the de facto No. 1 corner in the wake of White’s injury, Wallace put up a fantastic season overall. He has improved each year as a tackler, and he continues to be a great zone defender. As a limited athlete, Wallace can’t really keep up with better receivers in a man-to-man setting, and when you have to go through Kansas City to win the AFC, that’s a problem. I’d like for the Bills to check in with his agent, but after his stellar performance this season, I assume that Wallace may have played himself into a contract that Buffalo just won’t be able to afford to pay. I can think of few players who deserve it more than Wallace, a former college walk-on who has fought tooth-and-nail for everything he’s earned in the game between his time at Alabama and in Buffalo.
Contract status for 2022: Signed; first year of four-year contract extension ($16,403,755 cap hit; $24.843 million cap hit if cut or traded)
Age: 27 (28 on 1/16/2023)
Playing time: 11 games (11 starts), 629 defensive snaps (58.35% of team total), 37 special teams snaps (8.53% of team total)
Key statistics: 41 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, .5 sacks, 6 pass breakups, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 51.6% completion rate allowed (33/64), 328 yards allowed, 4 pressures
I hate to play the what-if game...but I’m going to do it anyway: If Tre’Davious White doesn’t tear his ACL on Thanksgiving night against the New Orleans Saints, Buffalo wins the Super Bowl this year. I’ll go to my grave thinking it. White is that important to this defense, as he can take away an entire side of the field or a team’s best receiver in equal measures. He’s a great run defender, an excellent zone defender, and a tenacious man defender. Here’s hoping that he’s ready to start the season, and if he is, that he’s also able to play at or near the level he did prior to the injury.
Contract status for 2022: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($705,000 cap hit; $15,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 22 (23 on 3/10/2022)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Griffin remained on Buffalo’s practice squad throughout the season, but he didn’t make an appearance in a game.
Contract status for 2022: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($706,500 cap hit; $3,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 26 (27 on 7/31/2022)
Playing time: 1 games (with Cleveland Browns)
Key statistics: 2 tackles
Harris spent a week in the offseason with Buffalo before he was waived. He then returned to Buffalo after White was injured, signing to the practice squad on November 29. His only game action this year was with Cleveland.
Contract status for 2022: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($825,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap)
Age: 23 (24 on 7/9/2022)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
McCloud spent his rookie year on the practice squad just like Griffin.
Buffalo needs help here for multiple reasons. For starters, they don’t have a person who’s guaranteed to be healthy when the season begins who I’d be comfortable with as a top starting corner. Dane Jackson is, for all intents and purposes, the top dog heading into July. Sure, I hope that Tre’Davious White is fine by that point, but ACL injuries are all different, and athletes heal at different paces. Buffalo’s can’t assume that their All-Pro corner is going to play like an All-Pro right away.
This is where I’d spend my first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft if I were general manager Brandon Beane. Someone like Trent McDuffie of Washington is who I’d target at the end of the first round, with Auburn’s Roger McCreary another name I’d be thrilled to hear Roger Goodell call. They both could step in immediately and start across from White, and Jackson is a solid third outside option to spell both the rookie and veteran as they round into shape. Buffalo could also look to the free-agent market to fortify the position, but free-agent players cost free-agent dollars, and the Bills have needs along the offensive and defensive lines that could better use that money.
If Wallace can be re-signed for somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million annually, then I’d pull the trigger; however, I think he’ll be able to make more than that elsewhere. The Bills could certainly do worse than Wallace, but replacing him with someone capable of playing man coverage against better competition will elevate this defense, which has been limited in the past by having less-than-stellar athletes at the second cornerback spot. Adding a plus-athlete to a healthy White will make the Bills even stronger in the secondary. I trust this coaching staff to continue to develop young players like Griffin and McCloud, but they need to find a strong complement to White in order to take the next step.