How the Buffalo Bills can address cornerback in bid to maintain No. 1 defense
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills have been aggressive in going after most of their needs this offseason.
After identifying a dynamic pass-rusher as a missing component to the roster, general manager Brandon Beane went all-in on signing linebacker Von Miller to a deal that includes $51.4 million guaranteed. The front office has used free agency to reconstruct the defensive line and bring in a variety of help on offense.
The Bills had the league’s No. 1 defense last season and look primed to have success again. But one area they haven’t addressed is cornerback. With 2021 starter Levi Wallace choosing to join the Pittsburgh Steelers on a two-year, $8 million deal, a position that already lacked depth needs additional talent.
How could the Bills address the position in the draft?
In ESPN draft expert Todd McShay’s latest mock draft, he has Buffalo taking Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. with the 25th overall pick. McShay says Booth is “scheme-versatile, explodes out of his backpedal and shows above-average ball skills.”
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“I think you could get Booth and feel good about it, but there’s some other positions that you look at this year like the depth along the offensive line, the depth at linebacker, there are some really good players to be had in [the Bills’] range,” McShay said.
Trading back in the first round or into the early second could work well for the Bills. Along with Booth, ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen says he thinks that Washington corners Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon would fit the Bills defense.
“One, [McDuffie] tackles. He’s physical, he’s urgent,” Bowen said. “Very good man coverage skills. Very competitive, in terms of his man coverage ability, can break downhill on the football, can match the crosses, can stick to the hip of wide receivers downfield. But then you can also say, well, he can play Cover-2, as well.
“[Gordon] has tremendous transition speed, and what I mean by that is the ability to come out of your pedal and drive downhill on a cross or an underneath route and tackle immediately and close the distance in a hurry. It is exceptional.”
But investing a top pick to play opposite No. 1 corner Tre’Davious White would go against the team’s recent draft history.
The Bills haven’t used a pick on a cornerback in the first three rounds of the draft since selecting White 27th overall in 2017.
There’s a good case to make that the Bills should go against their recent history this year.
“Rush and coverage [are] always a two-way street,” Bowen said. “Von Miller is not going to get there every time. You need to cover the aspect behind. This should be an area where the Bills can really boost their overall secondary, which is one of the top secondaries in the NFL.”
No matter their draft approach, adding a veteran corner to the roster should also be a priority for both depth and to add experience to the room. A long list of intriguing free-agent corners remains, including former Bill Stephon Gilmore and former Steeler Joe Haden. Both, Bowen notes, would fit the team’s scheme. The question is whether the team can afford to pay those veteran corners what they are looking for.
The Bills recently freed up an additional $6.18 million in cap space with Stefon Diggs‘ four-year extension, and they can create more by restructuring other deals, including White’s, although that is something Beane says he prefers not to do.
“My main focus right now is the draft. We’re out of money unless [the reporters] have some here,” Beane said jokingly last week. “Other than that, we’ll always look. After the draft, we’ll be looking. We’re never satisfied. We got a lot of positions that I still want to get more depth. We’re not just waking up every day saying, ‘Where’s the corner?’ We’re looking everywhere and we have a lot of time. We don’t play games until September. It’s my job to make sure we have the roster ready by then and not April 1.”
As the roster stands, White — if he’s healthy enough to start Week 1 after tearing an ACL in November — would start opposite 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson, who started a combined eight regular-season and postseason games last year.
Jackson could develop into a consistent starter but didn’t step up in key moments, including allowing an 80% completion percentage as the nearest defender in the playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Tre’s doing well — he’s working hard in the building, so we’ll start there. I don’t want to forget about Tre,” coach Sean McDermott said when asked about the position at the NFL owners meetings. “And then Dane, we have a lot of confidence in Dane as well, and the work that he’s put in and shown, and the results on the field to this point.”
The Bills re-signed defensive back Siran Neal to a three-year deal, but he is almost solely a key special teams contributor, and nickel corner Taron Johnson received a three-year contract extension at the beginning of the 2021 season. Lewis — entering his third NFL season — is the only other cornerback on the roster with starting experience, but that has come when filling in at nickel.
Having more young talent and experienced corners on the roster would be a boost for a defense that finished the season giving up a season-high 378 yards to Patrick Mahomes in a second straight season-ending loss to Kansas City.
“We’ve got some depth pieces there,” Beane said of the cornerback spot. “But we definitely have to take a look and make sure — that’s an important position — and make sure we’ve got that answer.”