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Buffalo Bills training camp roster preview: Safeties

The Bills have two top-end starters, and some intriguing young depth

Buffalo Bills v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Since 2017, head coach Sean McDermott has been able to trust that the back end of his defense would be manned by solid safeties—a must in his zone-heavy scheme. The Bills have been able to limit explosive plays through the air as a result.

Buffalo’s two starting safeties are both under contract for the 2021 season and beyond, after they signed contract extensions in the last 18 months. The Bills lost some experienced depth this offseason, but have reloaded with some intriguing young depth behind the experienced starters.

In our latest look at the State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster heading into training camp, we profile the safety position.

Jordan Poyer

Contract status for 2021: Signed; first year of two-year extension ($7.875 million cap hit; $2 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: Turned 30 on 4/25/2021
2020 Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 953 defensive snaps (88.98 percent), 156 ST snaps (34.74 percent), two offensive snaps (.18 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 124 tackles, four quarterback hits, four tackles-for-loss (TFLs), two sacks, five pass breakups (PBUs), two forced fumbles (FF), two interceptions (INTs)

It’s almost comical at this point how overlooked Poyer is in the NFL. The former seventh-round draft choice has developed into an elite player in Buffalo, and he led the team in tackles last season. He was fifth in the league in solo tackles and 12th overall in 2020. And while he did allow 73 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed, he allowed a paltry 7.8 yards per reception. Poyer is one of the league’s best safeties, and is arguably among the most underrated players in the league.

Micah Hyde

Contract status for 2021: Signed; added a two-year extension to the final year of his original contract this offseason (2021 salary fully guaranteed, $6.6 million cap hit)
Age: 30 (31 on 12/31/2021)
2020 Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 881 defensive snaps (82.26 percent), 64 ST snaps (14.25 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 70 tackles, one TFL, five PBUs, one INT

The veteran had another quietly solid season as the more frequent deep safety in Buffalo’s setup. Hyde came to the Bills via the Green Bay Packers as a jack-of-all-trades type, but he’s settled into his role as one-half of Buffalo’s elite safety duo. Hyde is a sure tackler who can handle man coverage duties when necessary, but where he really excels is as the deep safety in zone coverage.

Jaquan Johnson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($896,085 cap hit; $92,170 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 11/13/2021)
2020 Playing time: 14 games, 249 ST snaps (55.46 percent), 49 defensive snaps (4.58 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: Four tackles

Johnson has seen plenty of time on special teams in his two years, but he hasn’t been able to unseat veteran Dean Marlowe as the third safety. With Marlowe now on the Detroit Lions, Johnson is primed for that third safety role in his third NFL season.

Josh Thomas

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/26/2021 ($660,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 11/19/2021)
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 statistics: N/A

Thomas spent the 2020 season on Buffalo’s practice squad. He signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent last May. Buffalo elevated him to the game day roster twice, but he was a healthy scratch each time. He will be in competition for the fourth safety role that had been held be Johnson.

Damar Hamlin

Contract status for 2021: Signed four-year rookie deal this offseason ($700,119 cap hit, $160,476 dead cap)
Age: 23 on 3/24/2021
2020 Playing time: Ten games for University of Pittsburgh
Key 2020 statistics: 66 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 7 passes defended for Pitt

Much like Thomas, Hamlin is competing for the depth safety role previously occupied by Johnson, and because of his draft status he may have the inside track. Like Johnson, Hamlin is a former sixth-round pick. Last year, Hamlin led Pitt in tackles and pass breakups and was named Second-Team All-ACC. Buffalo scouted him at the Senior Bowl, a venue they tend to value highly.

Tariq Thompson

Contract status for 2021: Signed three-year UDFA contract this offseason ($664,166 cap hit, $32,500 dead cap)
Age: 21 (22 on 8/9/2021)
2020 Playing time: Eight games for San Diego State University
Key 2020 statistics: 41 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Thompson fell into undrafted territory because his physical testing numbers aren’t great, sort of like Levi Wallace who has been able to carve out a nice career in Buffalo. If he can be heady this offseason, he can

Players who left this offseason

  • Dean Marlowe (Detroit Lions)

Hyde and Poyer are two of the most underappreciated players in the NFL, but I think Bills fans know how lucky they are to have the duo in tact for multiple years moving forward.

The biggest change to the safety position in years took place this offseason when Dean Marlowe left. The steady reserve, Marlowe was a backstop and it was nice to have him for so long if Hyde or Poyer missed time (which was infrequent). He wasn’t expensive—Detroit signed him for the veteran minimum—so it’s likely it was a deliberate choice by one side or the other to move on.

Will Johnson waltz into the third safety role or will one of the young guns stake his claim? Johnson has been groomed for this for several years so it’s his to lose at this point.