For as long as Sean McDermott has been the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, the team has boasted arguably the league’s best safety duo. That pairing, comprised of two free-agent signings who inked their deals with Buffalo on the same day in the same offseason, has given the Bills’ defense an edge since their arrival.
Perhaps it’s because those two players were so undervalued by their former NFL teams that they were driven to succeed in Orchard Park, NY. Maybe it’s the scheme that accentuated their talents. Or, maybe it’s their talent that allowed the scheme to be so successful at times. In any case, Buffalo never had any worries at safety, and coming into the 2022 season, there weren’t many worries, either.
However, disaster struck in more ways than one at what had been one of Buffalo’s most steady positions. By season’s end, two of the top four safeties on the roster were on injured reserve—for vastly different reasons—and another player gutted through multiple injuries. If you were asked about the worst-case scenario for the team at a positional group, I don’t think that any of us could have dreamed about what actually happened to the team’s safeties this year as if it would have been reality.
In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we profile the safety group, and stop me when you’ve read this before, but it’s another group that is expected to see change heading into next season.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 30 (31 on 7/25/23)
Playing time (with Bills): 4 games (1 start), 69 defensive snaps (6.57% of team total), 36 special teams snaps (8.78% of team total)
Key statistics (with Bills): 3 tackles. In the playoffs, Marlowe made two starts, accounting for 7 tackles, 1 pass breakup, and 1 interception
Marlowe was re-acquired at the trade deadline to add depth to an injury-depleted safety group. Instead, he spent much of the season as a healthy scratch who was inactive on game days, and it was only after tragedy struck that he saw much time on defense. It’s certainly possible that he returns on a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum, but I doubt that re-signing Marlowe will be a large priority this offseason.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 27 (28 on 11/6/23)
Playing time: 16 games (3 starts), 226 defensive snaps (21.5% of team total), 246 special teams snaps (60% of team total)
Key statistics: 32 tackles (7 special teams tackles), 1 pass breakup, 1 interception
Heading into the 2022 season, I was an advocate for seeing what Johnson could do on defense, as I felt that he had played well in limited time during his first few years in the league. However, when given time in the starting lineup this past season, he was brutal, allowing big completions and taking poor tackling angles time and time again. He was ultimately replaced in the starting lineup by Damar Hamlin, and while he remained an integral part of the special teams unit, he wasn’t asked to do much on defense, and with good reason. He’s another player who could return in a depth role, but only if the contract numbers are low.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 31 (32 on 4/25/23)
Playing time: 12 games (12 starts), 755 defensive snaps (71.84% of team total), 42 special teams snaps (10.42% of team total)
Key statistics: 63 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble
Aside from linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Poyer is the other big-time free agent who’s certain to draw considerable interest from other teams. In an ideal world, the veteran comes back to Buffalo on a two or three-year contract at a reasonable AAV and salary cap number. However, in the business of the NFL, it’s more likely that Poyer is wooed by a team with more cap dollars to spend than the Bills. Spotrac places his yearly value at around $11 million per season, and for a soon-to-be 32 year old, that might be a tough pill to swallow for Buffalo. At some point, you’re paying veterans more for what they’ve done rather than what it is that they will do — which makes keeping great teams together very difficult. Poyer played through knee and elbow injuries this year that would have sidelined lesser players, and while it’s possible that the team brings him back and allows Edmunds to walk, I have to imagine that the priority for the front office is 49 first, then 21. Given their age and probable remaining career arcs, I think that’s where I’d go, too. The shame is that I think Poyer still has good football left to play, as is evidenced by his excellent performance when on the field in 2022. We’ll see what the team wants to do once free agency opens.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($940,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 6/24/23)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Mayden signed with the Bills midseason as a depth move. He was not active at all during the year, but I assume that he has a good chance of remaining on the roster next season thanks to his low cap number and his familiarity with the defense after spending a season in the system. We’ll know more about what he can do after training camp and the preseason begins — if he does in fact remain with the team.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; third year of four-year rookie contract ($980,119 cap hit; $80,238 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 3/24/23)
Playing time: 15 games (13 starts), 846 defensive snaps (80.49% of team total), 76 special teams snaps (18.54% of team total)
Key statistics: 91 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble
With all the hardships Buffalo endured, no one in their wildest dreams would have thought that a player would suffer a cardiac arrest and need resuscitation during a game, but that’s exactly what happened to Hamlin on the night of January 2. That moment came to define Hamlin’s season, which was his first where he saw significant playing time on defense. He had his ups and downs, but it was ultimately a promising start for the second-year player, as he led Buffalo safeties in tackles, sacks, and playing time on defense. Hamlin says that he wants to continue playing football, and we’re hopeful that he can do so as long as he can do it safely and confidently. Time will tell as he continues his recovery.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of two-year extension ($10,571,294 cap hit; $7.044 million dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 32 (33 on 12/30/23)
Playing time: 2 games (2 starts), 101 defensive snaps (9.26% of team total), 3 special teams snaps (.73% of team total)
Key statistics: 7 tackles
The veteran suffered a neck injury during Buffalo’s blowout victory over the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 in what was a harbinger of injury troubles to come. With one year left on his contract, it’s likely that Hyde is back in the lineup come September, as he would have been ready to play had Buffalo met the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. That’s a good sign, though we do have to wonder about his health moving forward given his age and the severity of the disc injury he suffered this year.
I don’t know if there’s another positional group that faces more uncertainty headed into next season than the safety group. The best player is a free agent, the next-best player is coming off a major injury, and the third-best player is recovering from a near-death experience. Even if Buffalo is able to re-sign Poyer and then Hamlin is cleared to play football, they’ll need to add here, probably via the draft, to prepare for the future. With Hyde set to turn 33 and Poyer approaching 32, that future is going to come sooner rather than later at safety.
If Beane chooses to re-sign Edmunds over Poyer, I think that safety is a good bet to be either Buffalo’s first or second-round draft pick, depending on how the board falls (for the record, I’m going offense in Round 1, whether that’s a guard, a wide receiver, or even a tight end if the right name falls to No. 27 overall). If all of the top-end offensive talent is gone, however, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Buffalo select either Antonio Johnson or Jammie Robinson early, with players like Sydney Brown, JL Skinner, and Trey Dean serving as possibilities in later rounds.
I think that Beane wants to re-sign Edmunds, but I’m also not sure that he’ll be able to do so. If he can’t, I’m sure he’ll turn his attention to Poyer, whom the team definitely values as a leader and a player, but might not value at the same monetary level that he and his agent think he deserves at this point in his career. I think Poyer has already mentally come to terms with playing elsewhere in 2023, and there is a disaster scenario where Beane is unable to re-sign either player. It’s going to be a delicate balancing act, for sure, but if I were a gambler, I’d bet on Poyer being elsewhere next season. Regardless, the Bills need to add young talent here.