The Buffalo Bills have a very good defensive secondary, and while the safety position may be in a state of flux at the moment, the corner position is decidedly more stable. Of the five top corners from last season, four of them are under contract for the 2023 season — in fact, they’re all signed through at least 2025 — so the Bills could easily maintain the status quo here if they so choose.
The danger with that, of course, is that they can’t necessarily rely on people to continue on an upward trajectory year after year. Will Buffalo add some back-end depth at corner? I certainly hope so, as this past season’s wild spate of injuries proved the old adage that you truly cannot have enough corners. The good thing for the Bills is that they seem to have four legitimately excellent corners on the roster.
In the penultimate edition of the State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster heading into the 2023 NFL season, we profile the cornerbacks.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($918,569 cap hit; $145,707 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 22 (23 on 9/21/23)
Playing time: 9 games (5 starts), 363 defensive snaps (34.54% of team total), 43 special teams snaps (10.49% of team total)
Key statistics: 24 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 5 pass breakups, 1 interception
The sixth-round draft pick was the second of Buffalo’s draft choices at corner this year, but he was the one who earned the starting gig for the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams. When Benford was healthy, he far outplayed his draft pedigree, fitting right into the defensive scheme and acting as a de facto CB1 given the struggles of the player across from him. The problem is that he faced a plethora of injuries throughout the season, including a fractured hand and an oblique injury that led to a stint on injured reserve. There has been talk of moving Benford to safety next season, but given his success at corner, that may not come to pass. The offseason will be an interesting one for the former Villanova standout.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($3,111,548 cap hit; $11,201,572 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 21 (22 on 5/5/23)
Playing time: 13 games (6 starts), 477 defensive snaps (45.39% of team total), 25 special teams snaps (6.1% of team total)
Key statistics: 41 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 4 pass breakups, 2 interceptions
Elam looked like he was going to be a huge disappointment early on when he was beaten out for a starting job by Christian Benford in spite of Buffalo using the No. 23 overall pick on him. However, as the season wore on and he received more opportunities, Elam played very well in some tough spots. He was tasked with shadowing Tyreek Hill when the Bills and the Miami Dolphins played, and in all three contests, he was able to limit big plays against one of the league’s preeminent deep threats. One of the knocks on Elam coming out of college was that he was a little grabby sometimes, but he was only called for three penalties that opponents accepted, so that didn’t play too much of a role in his season. Given how well he played at the end of the season, it’s fair to question whether head coach Sean McDermott’s hesitance to play rookies in large roles led to a limited snap total for him but, again, after watching a fellow rookie in Benford begin the year as a starting cornerback, it’s hard to make that leap. It took Elam some time to acclimate to the pro game, but by the end of the year, he looked to be exactly the kind of athletic corner the team desperately needed to add.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; RFA ($2.627 million tag for right-of-first-refusal per Over the Cap)
Age: 26 (27 on 11/29/23)
Playing time: 15 games (14 starts), 829 defensive snaps (78.88% of team total), 8 special teams snaps (1.95% of team total)
Key statistics: 57 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 12 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble
Everyone’s favorite scapegoat in the secondary definitely had his struggles, as other teams seemed to game plan their passing attack around the receiver Jackson was guarding. Jackson, for his part, ended up leading the team in pass breakups, and he was second among all of the team’s corners in snaps played. That’s a far larger role than what would have been expected out of the former seventh-round pick when he entered the league. It’s fair to say that while he isn’t someone the Bills should want starting every game, he’s a solid player to have filling out a depth chart. With the RFA tender sitting in excess of $2 million, I imagine that general manager Brandon Beane will look to do what he did with cornerback Levi Wallace following the 2020 season: Wallace, who was also a restricted free agent, signed a one-year contract worth $1.75 million, of which $1 million was guaranteed. That was less than the RFA tender that season, but it allowed the team to retain a player who fit their system, and it allowed the player to remain in a system where he could try to earn a larger contract the following year. That’s exactly what Wallace did, and that’s exactly what I anticipate the Bills will have interest in doing with Jackson.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of three-year contract extension ($9.25 million cap hit; $5 million dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 26 (27 on 7/27/23)
Playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 969 defensive snaps (92.2% of team total), 50 special teams snaps (12.2% of team total)
Key statistics: 90 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 9 pass breakups, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery
Buffalo’s slot corner is really a starter on defense, and he played more snaps than anyone on that side of the ball this past season. Given that Buffalo primarily operates in a base nickel defense, they need a slot corner who isn’t afraid to deliver a big hit in both the passing game and the running game — and Johnson fits the Bill in more ways than one. Sure, the team could save some cash by cutting him, but they’d be opening a gaping hole in their defense, and they’d be releasing one of the league’s top inside pass defenders. Johnson is a contract restructure candidate, as the club can save around $2 million by converting some base salary to bonuses.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; RFA (2.627 million tag for right-of-first-refusal per Over the Cap)
Age: 25 (26 on 4/13/23)
Playing time: 13 games (1 start), 104 defensive snaps (9.9% of team total), 171 special teams snaps (41.71% of team total)
Key statistics: 21 tackles (13 special teams tackles)
The University at Buffalo product cross-trained at safety this year, and it’s unfortunate that the highlight that will define his 2022 season is Justin Jefferson making a miraculous catch in front of him during Buffalo’s 33-30 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Lewis owned his mistake after the game, admitting that he should have tried to knock the pass down rather than trying for an interception. While it wasn’t the reason Buffalo lost, it was the first domino in a wild series of events in the fourth quarter that led to Buffalo’s collapse. Lewis is another player who will probably be back, but for much less than the RFA tender, as it would be egregiously irresponsible to tag him at that number. Lewis’s special teams contributions are an underrated part of his worth, as he tied for 16th overall in special teams tackles this past year.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of three-year contract ($3,313,333 cap hit; $1,066,667 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 28 (29 on 8/4/23)
Playing time: 16 games, 316 special teams snaps (77.07% of team total), 63 defensive snaps (5.99% of team total)
Key statistics: 19 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 4 pass breakups, 11 special teams tackles
Neal is another player whose greatest value is on special teams as one of the NFL’s premier gunners on punt coverage. His 11 special teams tackles tied him for No. 32 overall in the league, and while he’s made the transition full-time from safety to slot corner, he could still play as a safety in a pinch. Given the uncertainty at that position, it’s pretty obvious that Buffalo should want him back in 2023, and he’s worth more than the $2 million the team would save by releasing him.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year contract ($16,223,147 cap hit; $22,954,754 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 28 (29 on 1/16/24)
Playing time: 6 games (6 starts), 308 defensive snaps (29.31% of team total)
Key statistics: 20 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 1 interception
The former All-Pro made his return from an ACL tear, albeit a bit slower than many fans hoped he would. White had an uneven return, as some teams chose to go right at him (especially the Cincinnati Bengals, who saw him lined up across from Ja’Marr Chase and looked to take advantage). It’s a small sample size, for sure, but White allowed 54.5% of the passes thrown his way to be completed for a total of 244 yards and one touchdown. The completion rate is right in line with his career norms, but the yards per reception (13.6) was a career-worst total. With another full offseason of rehab, he should be in as good a place physically as he’s been since before he suffered the injury on Thanksgiving Night 2021. More importantly, though, is that White has cleared the mental hurdle of returning to competition. I have no doubts that he’ll be just fine in 2023.
Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/23/23 ($754,500 cap hit; $8,000 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 25 (26 on 9/2/23)
Playing time: 2 games, 44 defensive snaps (4.19% of team total), 12 special teams snaps (2.93% of team total)
Key statistics: 3 tackles
The undrafted rookie was pressed into action in Buffalo’s Week 3 loss against the Miami Dolphins, and it was a big play he allowed that ultimately set up the Dolphins’ go-ahead score. Am I blaming an undrafted rookie for letting Jaylen Waddle blow past him? Absolutely not, especially when it was fourth-year safety Jaquan Johnson who couldn’t provide help over the top. Ingram also appeared on defense during garbage time of Buffalo’s 38-3 blowout win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5. He’s a big-bodied corner who fits the system well, but he’s not someone who should challenge for playing time next season.
Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/23/23 ($754,500 cap hit; $9,000 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 22 (23 on 3/23/23)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
McMichael went undrafted in the 2022 NFL Draft, signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a UDFA. He was waived in August, and Buffalo signed him to their practice squad on September 1, which is where he remained for the duration of the season.
This might be the best positional group from top to bottom on Buffalo’s roster. The Bills have an All-Pro, two exciting young players, and another young player who serves as great depth to play outside. They also have one of the league’s best slot corners, as well as a pair of solid, versatile special teams players who can fill in at multiple spots in the secondary. With that in mind, I don’t expect many changes here as it relates to the names on the roster. What may change, though, is the primary position of some of those players — and if that’s the case, then the team will have to add a player or two to the unit.
If the team moves forward with shifting Benford to safety full-time, that increases the need to re-sign someone like Jackson, who no one will confuse with an All-Pro, but fits the defense well. If the team leaves Benford at corner, then they’ll have a decision of a different kind to make: Who sees the majority of the snaps? Elam earned his time at the end of the year, and you aren’t going to bench White (I’ve seen some fans float playing him at safety, and while that idea is certainly intriguing, I don’t know if he’s there yet at this point in his career).
You can never have too many corners, so I’d look to bring back Lewis and Jackson on short-term, non-guaranteed deals, and I’d also look at adding a corner either late in the draft or as an undrafted free agent. Corner isn’t an immediate need, so it shouldn’t be a top priority to add. But given the way the league is, it’s not a position that teams can neglect and expect to remain competitive.