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Buffalo Bills training camp preview, 2022: Cornerbacks

The Bills made a major upgrade, but big questions remain

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills are blessed with one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL—that is, of course, All-Pro CB Tre’Davious White. 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. While the results weren’t perfect, they were certainly much better than many of us would have anticipated. But one of those fill-ins—Levi Wallace—has flown the coup for a bigger contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Bills took an overdue big swing to replace him.

Today, we look at the team’s corners in our continuing examination of the state of Buffalo’s roster.

Tre’Davious White

Contract status: Entering first year of four-year contract extension he signed in 2020, he’s tied to the Bills through 2025
Age: Turned 27 on 1/16/2022
2021 Playing time: 11 games (11 starts), 629 defensive snaps (58.35% of team total), 37 special teams snaps (8.53% of team total)
Key 2021 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. 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. More realistically, the Bills should try to ease him back into the lineup during camp and the start of the season to make sure he’s ready for the more important games.

Kaiir Elam

Contract status: Signed a four-year fully guaranteed rookie contract this offseason
Age: Turned 21 on 5/5/2022
2021 Playing time: 10 games for Florida Gators
Key 2021 statistics: 29 tackles, 1 interception, 5 passes defended

His stats aren’t gaudy, but Elam was an elite college cornerback, so opposing offenses went away from him. He yelled for the playbook on the plane when the Bills drafted him, and he’s thirsty to get his first taste of NFL action. He’s going to get it, as he’s likely to start training camp taking first-team reps on the defense that was number one in the NFL last year. For years we’ve been wanting a more athletic CB2 to pair with White and we finally have it. He may not be opposite White initially, but that’s certainly the plan, and Leslie Frazier has to be over the moon at the possibilities. I really want to tamp down expectations for him, but I’m also just really pumped for what it could mean for Buffalo’s defense going forward.

Taron Johnson

Contract status: Entering 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)
2021 Playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 878 defensive snaps (81.45% of team total), 4 special teams snaps (.92% of team total)
Key 2021 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 in 2021 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 cornerbacks 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. His early career saw injury concerns, but he’s largely quelled those fears.

Dane Jackson

Contract status: Entering final year of two-year contract ($895,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 11/29/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games (6 starts), 484 defensive snaps (44.9% of team total), 107 special teams snaps (24.65% of team total)
Key 2021 statistics: 41 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 50% completion rate against (20/40), 254 yards allowed

Jackson is only on a two-year contract because he didn’t make the team as a rookie seventh-round draft choice in 2020. That season, he was called up from the practice squad five different times to the active roster before making the 53-man roster outright in 2021. In 2022, he’s going to be the third cornerback when White is healthy. But who knows when that’s going to be? He will likely start training camp with the first-teamers. He stepped up in a big way in 2021, and if he does so again in 2022, he has the potential to sign a big RFA deal a year from now. His limited athleticism will always hinder him, like it did Levi Wallace before him, but he can be a very successful NFL cornerback.

Siran Neal

Contract status: Signed three-year contract extension on 2/23/2022
Age: 27 (28 on 8/4/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games, 287 special teams snaps (66.13% of team total), 153 defensive snaps (14.19% of team total)
Key 2021 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 the NFL for total special teams tackles last season, and he is an integral part of what Buffalo does in that phase of the game. Neal is an excellent gunner on punt coverages, and that’s where he is mostly used, but he can also fill in when the going gets tough. With how few CBs the Bills usually keep active, he’s had to fill in before and he’ll have to again.

Cam Lewis

Contract status: Entering final year of two-year contract ($925,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: Turned 25 on 4/13/2022
2021 Playing time: 7 games (1 start), 62 special teams snaps (14.29% of team total), 55 defensive snaps (5.1% of team total)
Key2021 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, but it’s hard to envision a consistent spot on the 53 for him.

Christian Benford

Contract status: Signed a four-year contract as Buffalo’s sixth-round pick
Age: 21
2021 Playing time: 13 games for Villanova Wildcats
Key 2021 statistics: CAA First-Team Defense, 39 tackles, 7 interceptions, 25 passes defended

Comparing Benford’s stats to Elam’s might make you go crazy, but playing in the FCS division of college football, you don’t quite get the level of competition that Florida gets in the SEC. He is explosive in his vertical and broad jump, but lacks top-end speed—and with Buffalo’s safeties that won’t be a problem right now. He has great size and good balls skills, he just needs time and scheme around him and he could be a late-round steal. I have a suspicion he could make the 53-man roster because of Tre White’s recovery, and I have included him in my early roster projections. Even if he isn’t in the final 53, he is an intriguing prospect Buffalo will want to keep around if they can. (They lost their late-round cornerback last year when the New York Jets signed Rachad Wildgoose off the practice squad.)

Olaijah Griffin

Contract status: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($705,000 cap hit; $15,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: Turned 23 on 3/10/2022
2021 Playing time: N/A
Key 2021 statistics: N/A

Griffin remained on Buffalo’s practice squad throughout the season, but he didn’t make an appearance in a game.

Tim Harris

Contract status: 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)
2021 Playing time: 1 games (with Cleveland Browns)
Key 2021 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 past season was with the Browns.

Nick McCloud

Contract status: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($825,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap)
Age: Turned 24 on 7/9/2022
2021 Playing time: N/A
Key 2021 statistics: N/A

McCloud spent his rookie year on the practice squad just like Griffin.

Ja’Marcus Ingram

Contract status for 2022: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($825,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap)
Age: 23, I think
2021 Playing time: N/A
Key 2021 statistics: 46 tackles (2.5 TFL), 3 passes defended

A transfer from Utah State to Texas Tech and finally the University at Buffalo, Ingram had a nice super-senior season for the Bulls. Maybe he can follow in Cam Lewis’s footsteps.

Travon Fuller

Contract status: Signed a three-year UDFA contract this offseason
Age: 23, I think
2021 Playing time: 13 games for Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Key 2021 statistics: 42 tackles, (4.5 TFL), 3 interceptions, 9 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery for Tulsa

Fuller used his last year of eligibility as a transfer to Tulsa from Texas A&M. He has good length but I can’t find a whole lot about him. He was primarily a special teamer at A&M.

I’m willing to bet you couldn’t name all 12 Bills cornerbacks before this article and you won’t be able to after it. But Dick Jauron always said you can’t have enough of them. With injuries and three-cornerback defenses being the norm, being able to go four-deep at each spot makes sense.

The biggest question at the cornerback position is the health of Tre’Davious White. But with the nature of his injury, I don’t even want to know how healthy he is until the start of the season. We don’t need him to tweak something and be out for months. Tre can take it easy (even though we know he wants to be out there) and come back late in camp or at some point in the regular season.

While White’s injury might be the biggest question, the biggest attraction beyond Josh Allen’s shorts is going to be Elam, the team’s top pick. Elam has big expectations attached to him with the defensive backs on the coaching staff who scouted him and the fact that a lot of those same people picked White back in 2017. He has a big hill to climb and everything laid out for him on how to climb it. I’m really looking forward to seeing his ascent.

Beyond those top two spots, the depth is fascinating. How many cornerbacks will they keep? Will they double down and keep two slot cornerbacks? Will they keep an extra outside CB to account for White’s injury? Which of the many, many depth options will be prioritized for the practice squad?

For my money, cornerback is the position group to watch at St. John Fisher University this summer.