Bills Looking for Final Adjustments to Help Elite Secondary


April is coming, and the 2020 NFL Draft is now the main focus for all 32 NFL teams. The Buffalo Bills, led by General Manager Brandon Beane, didn’t wait for this event to solve their needs. On the offensive side, the number one wide receiver was added and the offensive line got a reinforcement. On defense, the defensive line was revamped, but the Bills’ brass didn’t stop there.

Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer — these three names are responsible for what has become one of the top secondaries in the league. Taron Johnson and Siran Neal are the nickel corner and “big nickel” DB, respectively. They’re fine in their roles but still aren’t finished products. However, since he first came to Buffalo, Head Coach Sean McDermott has been looking for the missing piece in this group, a stud cornerback to play opposite White. He found answers for stretches, but this offseason he and Beane went to the market again to try to upgrade the position.

The Incumbent Starter

Levi Wallace had the option in his contract picked up and will be coming back to the team in 2020 as the incumbent starter at the right cornerback spot. After surprisingly winning the job near the end of his rookie year in 2018 and playing impressively well, he struggled through 2019. The former Alabama standout allowed 58 receptions on 89 targets (65.2%), 587 yards (10.1 yds/reception), five TDs, and a 93.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. He intercepted two passes and defended another six.

Wallace had a particularly tough time midway through his sophomore year. In five games, from week 7 to week 11, he allowed 23 completions on 27 targets, 290 yards, and three TDs, without any interceptions and just one pass defended, per Pro Football Focus. This stretch resulted in Kevin Johnson’s opportunities increasing in subsequent weeks.

The former Houston Texan got more playing time in Wallace’s place, rotating in and out at the right side, and the results were solid if unspectacular. Johnson finished the season allowing 24 receptions on 40 targets (60%), 312 yards (13.0 yds/reception), zero TDs, and an 84.6 passer rating. He didn’t get any interceptions and had three passes defended.

Johnson’s presence and performances helped the team and contributed to Wallace’s rebound in the final part of the season. However, after testing the market, he left for Cleveland after Buffalo choose to go in a different direction.

The Main Contender

The preferred route by Beane and McDermott was the reunion with one of their former biggest stars, former Panthers and Redskins cornerback Josh Norman.

After becoming one of the top corners in the league in Carolina under McDermott, Norman cashed in a big check from the Redskins. The move never panned out for Washington, with Norman not fitting the team’s preferred defensive style and steadily declining as the years passed. It culminated in his release this offseason after allowing 32 receptions on 46 targets (69.6%), 472 yards (14.8 yds/reception), eight touchdowns, and a 133.3 passer rating. He got just one interception and defended three passes on his way to being demoted and becoming a distraction.

Norman’s numbers aren’t very promising. In fact, they were worse than Wallace and Johnson’s. However, Wallace and Johnson’s potential were likely maxed out by McDermott and Frazier’s schemes, and Norman was a past his prime and misused in Washington. In his prime, he basically was Tre’Davious White in this defense. I’m not out here expecting him to become that again, but we can be confident he’ll be put in a better position to succeed.

I like the bet here. Norman excels playing zone, where his increasing lack of speed isn’t exposed as much and he can keep his eyes on the quarterback and aggressively lurk for interceptions. He’s also a good run defender for the position, especially good at the “peanut punch” technique, forcing fumbles at a good rate. If he still has something in the tank, McDermott surely will know how to take advantage of it.

The Plan B

Recently, Beane made another addition, one that has been happening each year since McDermott came to Buffalo in 2017: adding E.J. Gaines.

When he first came to Buffalo as part of the trade that sent Sammy Watkins to Los Angeles, Gaines became a great surprise. He played very well opposite White, forming a really promising duo at the cornerback position. He finished the season allowing 39 receptions on 61 targets (63.9%), 308 yards (8.0 yds/reception), and just one TD, intercepting one pass. Then he got a good offer from Cleveland and left in the 2018 free agency period, with Beane choosing to not pay a promising but oft-injured player.

He would end his first and only season as a Brown on injured reserve after struggling with concussions and was signed back to the Bills in 2019, only to end on IR again after suffering a core muscle injury in preseason. Now he’s back trying to pick up where he left off in 2017, not an easy task. Given the low investment made, Gaines is a low risk/high reward option that offers no downside in having him as one of the players contending for the second cornerback spot in training camp.

The Verdict

Brandon Beane again did a fine job addressing a need without overpaying in free agency. Norman and Gaines know the schemes and have enjoyed career years under McDermott’s tutelage. The coach also knows the players very well and how to best utilize their skills. Even if the two guys fail to impress, Levi Wallace is still in the picture, entering just his third year as a pro and having found some success as the team’s starter opposite Tre’Davious White. I think it’s fair to say the Bills have — at the very least — a solid floor at the position, with a real possibility of an upgrade with one of these players elevating their games in 2020.

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