Sal's State of the Bills: Cornerback

February 05, 2020 - 1:56 pm
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My State of the Bills series continues with a look at the cornerback position headed into the 2020 offseason:

Under contract:

  • Tre'Davious White
  • Taron Johnson
  • Siran Neal
  • Cam Lewis

Pending Free Agents:

  • Kevin Johnson
  • Levi Wallace (Exclusive Rights)

State of the Position:

The Bills had one of the best cornerbacks in all of football the season in Tre'Davious White, who just gets better and better each season and has a terrific future ahead of him. At some point they'll have to pay a premium price to retain him, but he's still under contract for next season. The team has until early May to exercise his fifth-year option for 2021, which they obviously will, barring any sort of extension before then. He was named a First-Team All-Pro and selected to his first Pro Bowl. He had an incredible year.

After White on the depth chart, there are serious depth issues that need to be addressed. The Bills were so thin at cornerback that they were playing wide receiver Isiah McKenzie there just to get through the regular season finale healthy enough after Levi Wallace was hurt during the game.

Wallace was the primary starter and player opposite White to start the year, but began to struggle midway through the season as teams started going away from White and began targeting him much more often. Although Wallace remained the starter, he and Kevin Johnson rotated every couple series throughout games. Johnson did a good job, and stayed healthy, which was a big question mark for him coming into the season after injuries plagued his first four years in the NFL. Wallace seemed better for it, as well. But that's not the ideal model for the team going forward. They'd love to have one, steady, reliable player there.

Johnson is a pending unrestricted free agent. He should be a player the team wants to have back, both from a depth and talent standpoint. He's a former first round pick who's shown he can be a valuable player. It will be interesting to see what his market value is after being a part-time player but staying healthy. My sense is he won't be offered huge money elsewhere, and teams would probably still rather have him on a shorter-term deal. That can easily work for the Bills and they may very well want to make that happen.

Wallace is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent. That means all the Bills have to do is offer him the minimum salary for a third-year player and they retain his rights without him having the ability to even get an offer from another team. That should happen. He's still young and developing and has played well enough over his first two years to warrant a shot at keeping his starting spot.

Taron Johnson is the team's starting nickel cornerback. He's a very good player who's not shy about playing the run from his slot corner spot. But that fearlessness has caused the smaller Johnson to have to battle several injuries over his first two years. He had two separate shoulder injuries his rookie year, then a hamstring injury last season that kept him out of four games. The Bills can't count on him being available for all 16 games next year and should look to add another slot corner to the mix.

Siran Neal became that backup slot corner last season after coming into the league as a safety. He can still play both. In fact, Neal is more of a Swiss Army Knife type of defender, able to play cornerback, linebacker, and safety in different situations. He was the "Buffalo Nickel" or "Big Nickel" cornerback last season, and did a good job in that role, even coming up with a sack in the team's playoff game at Houston. But Neal's best attribute and value is his special teams ability. He was terrific last season, leading the team with eight special teams tackles and also causing a fumble. He has the combination of size, toughness, and athleticism that might allow him to have a solid NFL career as a special teams player. He's a great fit on the roster and for coaches who value position flexibility.

Lewis, a University at Buffalo product, was having a nice preseason before suffering a concussion and placed on Injured Reserve. A full offseason with Bills coaches and training staff and he'll be someone to keep an eye on again at training camp.

I've thought for a while that cornerback is a sneaky possible first round grab for the Bills. The regular season finale against the Jets really swayed me in thinking that way. And if not first round or day two, they'll almost definitely be looking to add to the spot via free agency. The Bills just don't have enough depth there, and in today's NFL, it's vital to have as many good cornerbacks as you can. Also, with White's contract extension on the horizon and knowing what it will cost to keep him long-term, they may want to make sure they are spending a little less for a talented player on the other side of him. So, an early-drafted player who will be on a rookie contract over the next four years would make even more sense. Maybe it's not in the first round. But I can definitely see a cornerback being taken by the Bills within the first two days of the draft. Counting Neal, who is actually listed as a safety on the team's roster, the Bills brought ten cornerbacks to camp last year. Even if they were to qualify Wallace and re-sign Kevin Johnson, that would only give them six. There will be additions.


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