The Buffalo Bills’ defense definitely is the strength of the team. This unit has carried Buffalo to two playoff appearances in the last three years, with less-than-ideal production from their offensive counterparts.
After looking at the defensive line in the first article of my Lofton Exercise 2.0 series, and at the linebackers in the second piece, it’s time to evaluate the defensive backs. Spoiler alert: we’re really good there. So, here we go:
Can Win Games for You
Tre’Davious White – CB
After a stellar campaign in 2019, not allowing a single TD in coverage, the former first-round pick earned the first All-Pro selection of his career.
Tre'Davious White in 2019
Snaps in Coveage: 599
Touchdowns Allowed: 0 pic.twitter.com/5q5gSCK5dC
— PFF (@PFF) December 30, 2019
White established himself as a true game-changer at the cornerback position. Head Coach Sean McDermott can simply put him on the opponent’s best receiver and not worry about it costing them a game.
Tre'Davious White is pretty, pretty, pretty good pic.twitter.com/IOZqaRHf2W
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 25, 2020
Since 2017, he has allowed the league’s lowest passer rating for opposing QBs, at 57.9, according to Pro Football Focus, edging out reigning DPOY Stephon Gilmore (62.4). There’s no doubt in my mind that White can win games for the Bills in 2020.
Micah Hyde – S
9️⃣0️⃣ on the #PFFTop101.
We see you, @Micah_Hyde! 🔒 pic.twitter.com/YMWHkkzuqc
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) February 6, 2019
Another defensive stalwart for the Bills since his arrival, Hyde also makes the list in the top tier. The 2017 first team All-Pro selection continues to impress with his ball hawking skills.
PICKED! @micah_hyde read it and gets the goal line interception. #NEvsBUF #GoBills
📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/lm0vvtP8ei pic.twitter.com/3iYuMOEJQX
— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
He’s a major reason for Buffalo’s defensive success, with his leadership, experience and versatility. His chemistry with Jordan Poyer, his partner in crime at safety, makes them one of the top and most underrated safety tandems in the NFL.
One of the more important parts of McDermott's D over the past 3 years has been Safety. Locked down by one of the best tandems in the game:
Hyde 47 G, 212 Tkl, 20 PD, 4 TFL, 8 INT's, 2 FF, 2 FR
Poyer 47 G, 302 Tkl, 22 PD, 17 TFL, 11 INT's, 1 TD, 4 FF, 5 FR@micah_hyde @J_poyer21 pic.twitter.com/cfbsCbBNkz
— E.J. (@ejtowne) June 23, 2020
Jordan Poyer – S
The @BuffaloBills have signed S Jordan Poyer to a two-year contract extension (through 2022). pic.twitter.com/r5GSYisq0p
— Buffalo Bills PR (@BuffaloBillsPR) March 19, 2020
If the Bills’ safeties, as a tandem, are underrated, how about Poyer alone? It’s been crazy how he’s undervalued outside Buffalo. Since joining the team in 2017, Poyer has filled the stat sheet with his all around game. Not receiving a single Pro Bowl selection during this stretch has been criminal.
Film study: Buffalo Bills safety tandem of Jordan Poyer & Micah Hyde better than grades indicatehttps://t.co/6qrBkIyjyc
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) June 22, 2020
He’s an extremely valuable piece for HC Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier. His versatility as a former cornerback turned safety makes him a perfect fit for the team’s zone-based schemes. No wonder he has had huge success since arriving in Buffalo. His play, alongside White and Hyde, has elevated the overall defensive performance in the last few years.
Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have a combined zone coverage grade of 95.7 in the last two seasons which is good for 2nd in the league #Bills #BillsMafia https://t.co/mXrJpMO0bW
— PFF BUF Bills (@PFF_Bills) June 26, 2020
Can win with him
Taron Johnson – Nickel CB
The team’s nickel CB since being drafted in 2018 has evolved into a very good player in his role. He can cover and is fearless against the run, making him another good fit for the team’s zone schemes.
Taron Johnson limited receivers to just 0.78 yards per snap in slot coverage – the fourth-best mark in the league pic.twitter.com/nS4WGDf96n
— PFF (@PFF) April 19, 2019
His physical playing style comes with some negatives, though. Johnson has struggled with injuries in his NFL career so far, with his sometimes over-aggressive and poor tackling technique resulting in some shoulder problems. If he can improve there and avoid the time off the field, he could even step up a tier in this exercise.
I loved Taron Johnson's rookie year, but his tackling style def wasn't ideal. In 2019, he missed 13 tackles. It was a major issue but you could tell he was trying to use more technique, not just looking for the big hit. But the D needs more from him vs the run in this dept. pic.twitter.com/cSD9iEowwQ
— Erik Turner (@ErikJTurner) April 22, 2020
Josh Norman – CB
The free agent addition enjoyed his best football playing in this scheme, under McDermott in Carolina. After struggling to replicate that success in Washington, he’s back with his former coach, looking forward to re-establishing himself as a force in a very favorable situation.
The @BuffaloBills have signed CB Josh Norman to a one-year contract. pic.twitter.com/nuUk8UA10W
— Buffalo Bills PR (@BuffaloBillsPR) March 18, 2020
The number two CB spot is up for grabs after Levi Wallace’s struggles last year. Norman will get a shot there, and if he can prove that his forgettable 2019 was more about a poor fit in Washington’s defense than a regression due to age, then there’s no better opportunity to recover his value around the league than playing under McDermott again.
In his first 6 seasons in the NFL, Josh Norman surrendered just 13 TDs in coverage
Over the past 2 seasons he has allowed 16 pic.twitter.com/u1LSgyPJYN
— PFF (@PFF) February 14, 2020
I’m not really confident that he will be back at the elite level he used to perform at in Carolina, but I believe he can still be valuable in this scheme.
Levi Wallace – CB
He earned the starting spot opposite White with a strong finish in his rookie year, but he couldn’t carry the momentum to 2019. After a tough stretch midway through his second season, Wallace almost lost his job. Recently-departed Kevin Johnson got some of his snaps and the rotation continued for the rest of the year.
Levi Wallace has been proving doubters wrong his whole career. pic.twitter.com/uA18HzoqXG
— PFF (@PFF) January 19, 2019
2020 is going to be a make-or-break year for the former undrafted free agent. He’ll be playing on his one-year tender and needs to prove that he belongs as a starter in this league. To do so, Wallace will need to recapture his form from two years ago and beat Norman and E.J. Gaines for the starting job. It’s going to be interesting to see if he has it in him. For now, I still have him in the “can win with” group.
Props to Levi Wallace. Regardless of who they put him up against big, small, slow or fast he has always battled. Never backs down. Some good plays by him early in this game. pic.twitter.com/MUu5f3sfjB
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) August 16, 2019
E.J. Gaines – CB
The dark horse in the battle for the number two CB spot, Gaines is a stronger contender than people tend to believe.
CB EJ Gaines (25) 2017 @PFF grade 85.9. pic.twitter.com/lblwGlPvYe
— Mike Jurecki (@mikejurecki) March 17, 2018
Back in 2017, he was added from the Rams as part of the Sammy Watkins trade and quickly delivered. Starting 11 games, Gaines played well opposite White, helping the team end the 17-year playoff drought.
Gaines and White were a damn good pairing a few years back pic.twitter.com/vYSKDIZUx6
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 26, 2020
Like Norman, he has experience in this scheme, but he also has the advantage of already having some chemistry with the top three players in this secondary. He can also challenge Taron Johnson for the nickel job.
Gaines' tackling technique hasn't changed much.
In '18 he missed 7 tackles in 181 snaps vs 6 in 711 snaps in '17. pic.twitter.com/i9vdkvu8Y3
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 25, 2019
What holds down his case is his inability to stay healthy. Gaines missed the entire 2019 campaign and will try a comeback in Buffalo. If he can manage to stay on the field, there’s a possibility that he beats Norman and Wallace for the CB2 job. Time will tell, but he also proved that you can win with him.
Siran Neal – S/CB, Dean Marlowe – S, Jaquan Johnson – S, Dane Jackson – CB, Cam Lewis – CB, Josh Thomas – S, Garrett Taylor – S.
Siran Neal has potential to become a solid contributor in 2020. He has shown flashes in limited snaps as the big nickel and has versatility to line up all over the defensive backfield. So far, I can’t put him in a tier above, though. He’s not proven enough yet.
Dean Marlowe knows the schemes really well and is solid as a replacement for a few games if needed. The decrease in quality from Hyde and Poyer is pretty noticeable, though. Jaquan Johnson is a project with the instincts to become a good play-maker at some point, but he hasn’t had a real opportunity in his short NFL career thus far.
Rookie seventh-round pick Dane Jackson has a difficult battle ahead of him to make this roster, and the other guys are even bigger long-shots.
The secondary is the strongest group on the team when looking at the starters, with White, Hyde and Poyer leading the way. It’s very improbable that they don’t deliver on their tier one status.
In tier two, Taron Johnson is a good nickel CB and the battle between Norman, Wallace, and Gaines should result in the emergence of a more-than-capable starter opposite White. It’s a safe bet to expect at least one of them to live up to the “can win with him” status, if not even more.
The depth guys still need to prove themselves as starting material in this league. Missing one of the top guys for an extended period of time could be disastrous for this secondary, unless one of the players in the third tier can surprisingly improve in 2020. Neal and Johnson are my best bets here.
- Can win games for you: 3 (White, Hyde and Poyer)
- Can win with: 2 (Taron Johnson and Wallace)
- Need better: 4 (Neal, Rafael Bush, Lafayette Pitts, Ryan Lewis)
- Can win games for you: 3
- Can win with: 4
- Need better: 2 (If carrying nine DBs on the 53-man roster)