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Opinion: Should the Bills re-sign CB Levi Wallace?

“Training wheels”

Every offseason, the Buffalo Bills face “should they re-sign XYZ player” questions. And almost every time, the answer is the same: it depends. The binary “yes” and “no” when it comes to the player re-signing question may make for good Twitter fodder, but they rarely lend themselves to productive conversations because most of the time, the answer is variable based upon the projected contract. The guarantees, the average annual value, the contract years...all these things may have more or less weight given the player in question.

When the Bills were faced with the prospect of re-signing defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, I wrote an opinion piece that outlined my take on why the team shouldn’t re-sign Phillips...for the contract I thought he was likely to get on the open market. Sure enough, the Arizona Cardinals gave him a contract very similar to what I thought he’d get and his tenure in Arizona has largely been considered a disappointment. At no point was Phillips a bad player. In fact, given the fact that he may be a cap casualty this offseason and the Bills may be looking for another three-technique defensive tackle, I may end up advocating for a reunion in 2022. I simply said at the time of his pending free agency that I thought he’d get a contract that was above what I personally would be willing to pay for his services given the hard salary-cap environment under which NFL teams operate.

I’m about to say the same thing about Levi Wallace.

Levi Wallace has been a starting outside cornerback on one of the best defenses in football for multiple years. That alone will get him noticed on the open market. He’s proven to be reliable, healthy, and competent in the Bills’ zone-heavy system. But Spotrac currently listed Wallace as a player who projects at a $9.6 million average annual salary, putting him in the conversation with players like Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, and Chidobe Awuzie, all of whom bring greater athleticism and versatility to the table with the ability to be trusted in man coverage. Buffalo’s scheme is simultaneously a great fit for Wallace and is also limited due to the presence of Wallace. Jordan Poyer and, to an even greater degree, Micah Hyde notably limit the success opponents have passing downfield by staying leveraged and capping off routes. The Bills allowed passer ratings of 24, 3, and 31 in the deep left, deep middle, and deep right sections of the field respectively. The NFL average in those three areas are 86, 84, and 81. The ability of the safeties to take away deep passes minimizes the greatest weakness of Levi Wallace, which is the ability to stay in phase and make plays on the ball down the field and against superior athletes at the receiver position.

But maybe it’s time to take the training wheels off the defense.

The Bills are limited in the looks and coverages they can show to opposing quarterbacks because although Hyde and Poyer may take throws off the menu for opposing quarterbacks, there are certain plays that are themselves off the menu for the defense due to the presence of a sub-standard relative athlete at the cornerback position...which was fine when Wallace continually played a reasonable level for a reasonable salary. But if you have a corner opposite Tre’Davious White making almost $10 million annually, he shouldn’t be a player who limits what you can do defensively.

This would be an entirely different discussion if the contract in question was $4 million AAV. I would still advocate for the acquisition of a superior athlete at cornerback (as I have been for years), but if Wallace is your third outside cornerback and he’s making that salary, few will be chanting for his release due to how important depth is at that position. But limitations in scheme were permissible due to limitations in investment, and if the investment increases, so too must the return, and the return the team would need from Wallace at a $9.6 million annual contract would be more than they’ve seen thus far.

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