The question isn’t so much “Is CB2 a weakness?” as much as it is “If the Buffalo Bills’ defense has a weakness, where is it?” This is a warranted question because the Bills’ defense was pretty doggone good last season. They were sixth in DVOA on that side of the football and second only to the New England Patriots in points allowed per game. The Bills were third in the league in yardage surrendered through the air, and have been above-average at generating interceptions in each season since head coach Sean McDermott took the reins. This defense is pretty good.
And it was pretty good last year when Levi Wallace, Kevin Johnson, and Taron Johnson comprised the cornerback room behind All-Pro Tre’Davious White. Wallace had earned the job with his hard-nosed play in 2018 as a UDFA out of Alabama, and while his starting gig was secure entering the 2019 season, he eventually lost his stranglehold on the snaps. After shaky games in Week 7 against Miami and Week 9 against Washington turned into shakier games against Cleveland in Week 10 and Miami again in Week 11, Wallace remained the starting outside cornerback in name, but began bleeding snaps to nickel specialist Taron Johnson and free agent acquisition Kevin Johnson.
It was fine, but it was the weakest point on an otherwise glowing roster. Of the six receiving touchdowns the Bills’ cornerbacks gave up when in coverage last season, Wallace was responsible for five, including two in a midseason loss to the Browns. As he was phased out, the play improved with Kevin Johnson, who was healthy and solid for the Bills in relief, and Taron Johnson, who has always been a quality nickel when available. With a stud pair of safeties in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the Bills were able to play a healthy amount of zone coverage and protect their shaky outside corner play from true man responsibilities, relying on White to handle man coverage responsibilities in their match coverages.
As far as weakness goes, this wasn’t the Browns’ offensive line or the Eagles’ wide receiver corps of 2019—this was just a weakness relative to an elite CB1, a dynamic trio of linebackers, versatile starting safeties, and a solid pass-rushing defensive line. It wasn’t a glaring issue during the season, but when you started evaluating the roster as free agency and the draft approached, it was clear that resources could be spent there. However, they weren’t—at least, not to the degree many expected.
The big move made at corner for the Bills this offseason was the signing of Josh Norman, a veteran coming off of some pretty bad seasons in Washington. Despite his early-career success under McDermott when the two were paired in Carolina, Norman cannot be expected to replicate his peak play, as his athleticism has deteriorated to such a point that he isn’t able to turn-and-run with NFL-caliber receivers. Norman gave up eight touchdowns in coverage last season, which was third-worst in the league, and was eventually benched by a Washington team that didn’t even have a viable alternative.
It is unreasonable to expect that Norman wins the starting job, which is up for grabs between him and Wallace—Kevin Johnson left in free agency, Taron Johnson still starts in the slot, and veteran E.J. Gaines has opted out of the 2020 season. Even with Wallace’s struggles last season, he is a better player than Norman.
Arguably, then, the Bills are at best in the same position they were last season. They have Wallace, a UDFA who may have overperformed in 2018, slotted as the starter; they have a veteran in Norman and a nickel in Johnson behind him if they need to start rotating corners to jerry-rig coverage opposite White. With only a seventh-round pick spent at the position in the 2020 NFL Draft (Pitt CB Dane Jackson, who I kinda like), the position definitely didn’t improve. Only maybe did it even stay the same.
There are still free agent options on the market: Dre Kirkpatrick, Brandon Carr, Logan Ryan, and Aqib Talib are all without a team. None is an ideal second starter, but all have arguably played better than Norman last season and at least improve your chances of slapping together a workable rotation. But teams are reluctant to spend money on free agents with cap uncertainty in the future, and McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have long been able to turn late-round DBs into workable coverage schemes.
So the Bills are likely to hold pat at corner and likely to hold pat on defense, even with the loss of Shaq Lawson and Lorenzo Alexander—the entire unit is well-coached and talented. Much like last season, CB2 will be a weakness, but probably a survivable one. And next year, we’ll do the same dance again, hoping that the Bills go all-in on White’s running mate and really build a secondary to dominate for the next five seasons.
- Dec 01, 2022
- Nov 30, 2022