Bills’ secondary among NFL’s best, but will depth be an issue in 2018?


It’s no secret that the Buffalo Bills have one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Between starting cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Tre’Davious White, along with safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, there aren’t many teams that can match the talent that Buffalo has in their defensive backfield. While the Bills’ starting four defensive backs should cause opposing passers headaches, the lack of depth behind them is worrisome.

A glance down the Bills’ depth chart is troubling, as Breon Borders, Rafael Bush, Ryan Carter, Phillip Gaines, Taron Johnson, Dean Marlowe, Kelcie McCray, L.J. McCray, Siran Neal, Lafayette Pitts, and Levi Wallace round out the depth chart. That’s not ideal. If I’m a Bills fan and this remains the same come the 2018 regular season, I’m on my hands and knees praying that neither Davis, Hyde, Poyer, nor White goes down with an injury.

Diving into the numbers brings to the forefront even more concern. The 11 backup defensive backs have a combined 231 regular season games between them with just 41 starts. They collectively tallied 383 tackles, 31 passes defended, four fumble recoveries, four interceptions, and three forced fumbles. Conversely, White, Poyer, Hyde, and Davis notched 278 career regular season games played and 202 starts. In those outings, that quartet has chalked up 1,004 tackles, 181 passes defended, 46 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries, and seven forced fumbles.

The experience and productivity of the Bills’ backup defensive backs is concerning, especially at cornerback. Buffalo signed former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and the 27-year-old with 41 games played (16 starts) is the most experienced reserve in Buffalo’s secondary. He has 99 career tackles, 14 passes defended, two forced fumbles, and one interception in those games. As of now, Gaines is probably the top
candidate for the nickel corner position.

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In 2017, current unrestricted free agent Leonard Johnson served that role, though he earned a handful of starts because former Buffalo Bill E.J. Gaines battled injury for much of the season. After all was said and done, Johnson played in 61 percent (673) of the snaps last season and E.J. Gaines played in 59 percent (654). Johnson’s play was a pleasant surprise last year, and unless the Bills decide to bring him back late in the offseason as training camp nears, his departure will likely impact the Bills more than people think.

Buffalo also opted to not re-sign veteran cornerback Shareece Wright in free agency, and he eventually signed on with the Oakland Raiders. He played 41 percent (455) of the defensive snaps and secured five starts along the way last year.
The Bills are only returning one of their top four cornerbacks from last season in White.

Here’s a standout statistic: Johnson and Wright have combined for 75 starts over their careers. Buffalo’s backup secondary, which currently consists of 11 players, has only accounted for 41 career starts. Sure, they added a two-time Pro Bowler in Vontae Davis, but does that counter the losses of E.J. Gaines, Johnson, and Wright? There’s no way around it; the Bills lost a lot of their depth at the cornerback position this offseason.

Signing Davis should counter the loss of E.J. Gaines, leaving the Bills with a superb starting secondary. Still, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are going to be hard-pressed to get the most out of their backup defensive backs, who are far less experienced than last year’s unit.