The 2022 Buffalo Bills’ dynamic safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer became the greatest example that the best ability a player can have is availability. Hyde, a 2021 All-Pro, only lined in only two games for the Bills last season, while teammate and fellow 2021 All-Pro Poyer played in 12 regular season games for Buffalo. I don’t need to do the math for you, but when the best tandem in the NFL plays a total of 14 games, you’re going to have an issue at the position.
Even with the injuries to Hyde and Poyer, the Bills had a reliable replacement for the first 15.125 games in former Pitt standout Damar Hamlin. Despite the terrifying injury he suffered during the canceled Bengals game, Hamlin still finished third on the team with 91 tackles and seventh in tackles for a loss with six. The fact that Hamlin is living a productive life and has become an ambassador for better safety measures and equipment around athletic events is an amazing feat. Hamlin returning to practice last week after being fully cleared by his doctors is nothing short of amazing. If he is able to eventually take the game day field for Buffalo, it will be an insanely tasty cherry on top.
With a perceived lack of depth at the position heading into free agency, there was a lot of chatter about the possibility of corner Christian Benford switching to safety. The Villanova product had 24 tackles for the Bills last season and stands 6’1″ and 205lbs, so nice size for safety. He may still get to play CB for the Bills with the moves they’ve made in the offseason, which we will get to below.
Buffalo’s overall defense was once again one of the best units in football. The Bills were second in points per game allowed in 2022 at just 17.9 per contest. They gave up 319.1 yards per game, good enough for sixth best in the league. Football Outsiders’ ranked the Bills fourth in their DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). They came in third in rush defense DVOA and eighth in pass defense DVOA. In conclusion, both counting stats and analytics love the pro team in Orchard Park.
Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott didn’t sit back and hope for a healthy return of Hyde and Poyer. The front office did sit back in free agency and make one of the best dollar-per-dollar signings when they brought in Taylor Rapp from the Rams on a reported one-year, $1.77M deal. Depending on which outlet you want to look at, Rapp was somewhere between the top five and top ten best safeties available in this cycle, so landing him for less than the comp pick value was a massive move for Beane. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Rapp, a 2019 second-round pick, had career-high grades against the run (82.3) and in coverage (72.9) last year. Adding him gives Buffalo a trio of safeties unmatched in the NFL in 2023.
Beane also added a safety before free agency started when he inked Zayne Anderson to a two-year contract. Anderson isn’t the defensive addition that Rapp is, but he should be a solid piece on special teams and can play in a pinch should the injury bug attack again.
The Bills lost reserve safety Jaquan Johnson to the Las Vegas Raiders, who signed him to a one-year deal. Jones appeared in 16 games for the Bills in 2022, mostly in a special teams role. During his four seasons in Buffalo, Jaquan had 58 tackles in 60 games played.
It’s not hyperbole or being a fanboy journalist when saying that three of the top four safeties in the AFC East reside in Buffalo. It’s fair to rank Hyde, Poyer, Rapp, and Miami’s Jevon Holland as the top four in the division. This makes ranking the division pretty easy:
You can easily argue to flip third and fourth, but I will again allow my Michigan bias to place more weight into New England having Jabrill Peppers and slot them at three.
If the Bills are healthy, the duo of Hyde and Poyer is inarguably the best in the league. The pair earned second and first-team All-Pro in 2021, respectively before being dinged up in 2022. When you start with that as your base and add a top free agent signing in Taylor Rapp, it is hard to argue that Buffalo doesn’t have the best safety room in the league. Whether Sean McDermott decides to go with a muddled back seven or they deploy Rapp as a high-leverage backup, the Bills are loaded at S in 2023.
A lot of sports stereotypes, jokes, or cliches are based on some reality. With that knowledge, many of us have mocked Pitt safety Brandon Hill to the Bills late on day three. Brandon Beane has shown a love affair with grabbing Pitt prospects late in the draft. You can go back to our opening paragraphs and talk about Hamlin in the sixth round of the 2021 draft or step back to 2020, where they selected Dane Jackson in the seventh. All kidding aside, those picks have been home runs for value versus draft assets used. Keeping that trend going, the Bills could easily draft safety Brandon Hill from the Panthers in round six or seven and keep the tradition alive while adding depth to a position that may have some now but is thin entering 2024.
“If the Bills truly are moving toward a position-less back seven, JL Skinner from Boise State fits as a hybrid S/WLB. At 6036 209 lbs, Skinner is a big safety who has shown an ability to come downhill and offers good range in coverage. He suffered a pectoral injury that has limited his draft preparation, but should not affect him by the regular season. If he can add more muscle and develop better anticipation during a year’s tutelage from Hyde and Poyer, his skillset could help muddy the defensive look,” – @LowBuffa.
“The Bills are currently STACKED at safety with Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Taylor Rapp under contract. In theory, they don’t need to add another player to that room, in reality just one of those players is under contract in 2024 (Poyer). That means the Bills very well could target this position on day three and develop a player behind these three while allowing them to contribute on special teams. Who’s that player though? How about Gervarrius Owens out of Houston. He’s a deep safety who needs to work on the finer parts of his game but if anyone can coach him up it’s Sean McDermott. Add to that plentiful special teams experience as well as a career arc that screams process and this could be another home run pick for McBeane in the sixth round,” – @UberHansen.
“With Jordan Poyer returning to the Bills after testing the open market, it allows Brandon Beane to forgo selecting a safety with high draft capital. Thankfully for the Bills, this draft class holds great depth at the position! Enter Ohio State dynamo Ronnie Hickman. Gifted with great speed (4.45) and athletic ability, Hickman is the perfect complement to a defensive secondary. Possessing good stature, along with fluid movements, Hickman isn’t precluded from dishing out the punishment with hard hits. Having more than enough juice to hang with elite tight ends, Hickman is also very sound in run support. There are some instinct concerns here, but having the ability to sit and learn behind Poyer and Micah Hyde is now the great benefit Buffalo didn’t expect to have entering the draft,” – @Chris_Chous.
I loved former Penn State Safety Jaquan Brisker, and he had a good rookie season with the Bears, so I might be influenced by that association, but Ji’ayir Brown (5113 203lbs) is the type of player I want to see as the next-generation of Bills’ safety. He has versatility, aggressiveness, ball skills, and zero hesitation. His mistakes happen when he takes risks or poor angles, but if he can bring discipline to his attacking style, you might just have the next perennial Pro Bowl Bills’ Safety,” – @LowBuffa.