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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: Safeties

After seven years of dominance, change is likely coming to one of the Bills’ strongest positional groups

NFL: Preseason-Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the entirety of head coach Sean McDermott’s tenure with the Buffalo Bills, the safety position has been locked down by two of the league’s best. While they weren’t technically the first free-agent signings of the McDermott era (that honor actually goes to linebacker Ramon Humber, who signed with the Bills on February 16, 2017), they were the first two players of the open free-agent period with McDermott in tow to make a huge difference with the Bills.

Now, as with all good things, it seems that their time together must come to an end. Will it lead to a total remodeling of the position? Or will we see a more gradual transition to the next phase of Buffalo’s defensive backfield?

In today’s look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we discuss the safety position — a group that has long been a point of strength on Buffalo’s defense. A quick programming note: Even though Cam Lewis spent plenty of time at safety, the Bills list him at corner and also play him there as the backup nickel corner. We’ll talk about him when we discuss the corners.

Damar Hamlin

Contract status for 2024: Signed; final year of four-year rookie contract ($1,095,119 cap hit; $40,119 dead-cap charge if cut or traded; .45% of total team cap)

Age: 25 (26 on 3/24/2024)

Playing time: Five games, 94 special teams snaps (21.9% of team total), 17 defensive snaps (1.6% of team total)

Key statistics: Two tackles

The fact that Hamlin suited up for a year of football less than a year after his heart stopped on a football field is miraculous. No, he didn’t play much on defense, and given what he’s been through, the Bills were wise to plan to mitigate his snaps this year. When he was active, he was used mainly on special teams. He’s likely to be back next season in a reserve role.

Micah Hyde

Contract status for 2024: Unsigned; UFA. He does, however, count $3.408 million against the cap next year thanks to a void year on his contract (1.41% of total team cap)

Age: 33 (34 on 12/31/2024)

Playing time: 14 games (14 starts), 797 defensive snaps (74.4% of team total), 37 special teams snaps (8.6% of team total)

Key statistics: 54 tackles, one tackle for loss, one QB hit, two interceptions, seven pass breakups

Hyde certainly sounds like a guy who knows his time with the Bills has come to an end, and his time in the NFL may be over, as well. After missing almost all of the 2022 NFL season with an injury to a disc in his neck, he missed multiple games this past season due to various stingers. When he was healthy, Hyde played well — serving as the main downfield safety in Buffalo’s stout defense. He didn’t fill up the stat sheet like he once did, but Hyde’s presence in the back end of the defense was an essential part of the team’s success. He’s going to be missed if the team moves on, and truthfully, both parties should. Given Hyde’s injuries and the age of his family, I would hope that he decides to retire before these neck injuries catch up to him.

Jordan Poyer

Contract status for 2024: Signed; final year of two-year contract extension ($7.47 million cap hit; $2 million dead-cap charge if cut or traded; 3.08% of total team cap)

Age: 32 (33 on 4/25/2024)

Playing time: 16 games, 16 starts, 987 defensive snaps (92.1% of team total), 60 special teams snaps (13.95% of team total)

Key statistics: 100 tackles, two tackles for loss, two QB hits, one sack, one forced fumble, four pass breakups

The other half of Buffalo’s elite safety duo, Poyer bounced back after an injury-plagued 2022 season to keep himself much healthier in 2023. It was the first time that he didn’t come up with an interception in his Bills’ tenure, and a lack of explosive plays was a theme throughout most of the season. Part of the reason he might not have been in position to make too many interceptions was that, thanks to injuries, the Bills had Poyer essentially acting as a linebacker on most third downs, as the team covered for the loss of star linebacker Matt Milano by playing a three-safety dime look with Poyer in the box for most of the year. It worked well for much of the season, and even though the Kansas City Chiefs were able to exploit it in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, there’s a pretty easy explanation for why: The Bills quite literally didn’t have enough healthy bodies at linebacker to match. Poyer has proven beyond a doubt that he will go down as one of those guys in franchise history that we speak of fondly for years to come.

Taylor Rapp

Contract status for 2024: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 26 (27 on 12/22/2024)

Playing time: 16 games (4 starts), 191 special teams snaps (44.4% of team total), 421 defensive snaps (39.3% of team total)

Key statistics: 50 tackles, one tackle for loss, one QB hit, .5 sacks, one interception, one fumble recovery, two pass breakups

The former second-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams came to Buffalo and played well in his first year in Sean McDermott’s defense. even when he didn’t play many snaps, his speed and athleticism were evident, as he flew around the back end of the defense in such a way that his older counterparts just can’t do anymore. Rapp isn’t the coverage player that Hyde is, nor is he as assignment-sound consistently as Poyer, but his athleticism is something Buffalo’s secondary needed desperately. Frankly, it’s something they need in the secondary moving forward, as well. Bringing him back for the 2024 season should absolutely be in play.

Kendall Williamson

Contract status for 2024: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/22/2024 ($795,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut or traded; .33% of total team cap)

Age: 23 (24 on 8/24/2024)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

Williamson signed with Buffalo after spending the entirety of his rookie season on the Chicago Bears’ practice squad. He did not appear in a regular-season game. In the preseason, Williamson tallied six tackles, including one tackle for loss, in three games. In five seasons at Stanford, Williamson totaled 213 tackles, 13 pass breakups, one interception, 1.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery in 44 career games.

The Bills don’t have much here, and yet, it seems like McDermott always has a plan for the secondary. Granted, he hasn’t had to do much thinking thanks to how great Poyer and Hyde have been, and this year poses a new challenge for him: How does the head coach move forward when “his guys” start to age out of the roles in which they’ve thrived for so long? McDermott is a secondary guy at his heart, as he was a safety himself at William & Mary (and a good one, too, as he was third-team All-Conference in 1997). If there’s a position where I trust that the Bills can find the right guys, it’s this one.

Plenty of people knew that Hyde was a good player when he signed with the Bills in March of 2017, but not as many knew exactly what One Bills Drive had acquired in Poyer. Through McDermott’s tutelage and defensive system, both Poyer and Hyde took their games to elite levels. Neither Hyde nor Poyer came with high draft pedigrees — Hyde was a fifth-round choice of the Green Bay Packers in 2013 and Poyer was a seventh-round choice of the Philadelphia Eagles in that same draft. They fit the Bills’ system perfectly, and they changed the culture of the club.

Replacing that kind of leadership is the most difficult thing. The Bills can start by re-signing Rapp, someone who’s been in the room all year with both Poyer and Hyde. There will likely be at least some consideration of releasing Poyer, as well, given that teams will often move on from a player a year too soon rather than wait a year too long. However, Buffalo would have to ask whether it would be worth opening a gaping hole on the depth chart and in the locker room to save the $5.47 million they’d save by releasing Poyer, and I think they’ll find that it isn’t worth it to do so.

The team should absolutely look into drafting a player here, but I wouldn’t want someone in the first round like a Tyler Nubin from Minnesota or a Kamren Kinchens from Miami. Calen Bullock out of USC, Jaden Hicks from Washington State, and James Williams from Miami are all intriguing prospects to me, as they are all at least 6’3” and they all can deliver the boom in the run game. That kind of size and athleticism could really be fun to see in McDermott’s system, but he’s tended to go with more “traditional” safeties throughout. Beau Brade out of Maryland, the Georgia pair of Tykee Smith and Javon Bullard, and Wake Forest’s Malik Mustapha all fit that bill. Oregon’s Evan Williams sounds like someone I might’ve hung out with too much in college myself, but he is an excellent athlete who can easily fill the Hyde role on this defense.

Of course, Buffalo could also go the free-agent route, but they aren’t going to be able to do much more than go looking at players from Wish rather than players from somewhere high-end. Antoine Winfield Jr.’s dad was one of my favorite players growing up, but bringing him home to Buffalo isn’t in the cards. Kyle Dugger would be a great addition, but he’s likely to command much more than the Bills can pay. Could the Bills re-sign Hyde? Absolutely. I’ve outlined above why I don’t think that’s a good idea for the player, but from the team’s perspective, the Bills need more speed and athleticism in the secondary. They need youth here. Jeremy Chinn from the Carolina Panthers makes sense given his youth (he’ll be 26 in February), his athleticism (4.45 40-yard dash, 20 bench reps, 41” vertical at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine), and the most important prerequisite: He played for the Panthers.

Julian Blackmon is another young player whose rookie contract is expiring, and he’s coming off the best year of his career for the Indianapolis Colts. While Chinn was a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Blackmon was taken in the third round that year. Chinn is the superior athlete, but Blackmon produced this year, logging 88 tackles and four interceptions for the Colts on defense. Either player would be a good signing for a Buffalo team known for a defensive back-friendly scheme.

There’s been some chatter about moving one of Buffalo’s corners to safety, as well, but I don’t know how I feel about it. The name that always came up was Christian Benford given that the Bills have Kaiir Elam, Tre’Davious White, and Dane Jackson on the roster, but the issues with all of those names are pretty obvious. Since White tore his Achilles’ tendon, the focus has shifted to moving him to safety. There’s no guarantee that such a move would be successful, and while the Bills have done it before (Troy Vincent moved to safety late in his career with the team, and Aaron Williams began his Buffalo tenure as a cornerback), it’s been a while since it worked out beyond the role that Cam Lewis has with the defense currently. It also doesn’t address the elephant in the room, which is that this is a secondary that needs to be more dynamic, more athletic, and more explosive.

Those three characteristics often come with youth, which is why I think Buffalo’s best course of attack here is to re-sign Rapp, sign one of the young safeties I mentioned above, and draft one on Day 3 (I can be talked into drafting a safety in Round 3 if the value is right, but drafting one earlier than that given the holes at wideout and defensive tackle would be a hard pill for me to swallow). If Buffalo’s safety room next year has Poyer, Rapp, Hamlin, Blackmon, and either James or Evan Williams fighting for four spots on the 53-man roster, I would be thrilled.