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Inside the Bills: Leonard Johnson hopes he's found a home in Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills’ 2017 season was barely 20 minutes old, but cornerback Leonard Johnson couldn’t help but think ahead.

“I would love, love, love to come back and be a part of this team again,” the veteran cornerback said in the visiting locker room after the Bills’ 10-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC wild-card game last month. “Obviously, us making the playoff run for the first time in 17 years, we made it a standard. We showed that we can do it. The expectation is to get back here every year. There are just so many good, positive things you can take away from this season.”

For Johnson, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, that list starts with the atmosphere fostered by coach Sean McDermott.

“One of the biggest positives is we made it a family-oriented culture and environment,” he said. “I look back on it, man, and this is my favorite team I've ever been a part of, from the time I started playing football. ... We had so many different personalities, and coach allows you to embrace everyone. The family part of it was big.”

Johnson signed a one-year, $855,000 contract with the Bills last offseason, passing over an offer to stay with Carolina to reunite with McDermott.

“It means a lot to be able to give a guy a second chance,” Johnson said. “I was in Carolina, I came off an Achilles injury. A few games right off the bat that were amazing, then I kind of just hit the tank. Any time a player plateaus, it's never really good. I'm glad coach saw enough in me to say, ‘hey, we can get that old Leonard back and keep him going.’ I'm just grateful for the opportunity.”

During their year together in Carolina, McDermott came to appreciate Johnson’s toughness – calling him a ‘little Tyson’ during last year’s minicamp, a nod to boxer Mike Tyson.

In his role as the slot cornerback, Johnson played 61 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He finished with 52 tackles, seven passes defensed and one forced fumble. His first season in Buffalo wasn’t perfect by any means, though. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked Johnson 29th among 31 slot cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of their team’s defensive snaps. He allowed 59 catches for 603 yards, according to PFF, both of which were the most among slot cornerbacks, but played 423 coverage snaps, which was second to the 430 by Washington’s Kendall Fuller.

“I feel like, for the first time in my life, I haven't looked at my body of work,” he said. “I was just, game, next game, game, next game. I'm trying to prove myself every single day. I'm getting coached harder than ever, I'm living right, I'm putting everything I have into this game. ... When you do that, good things happen.

“I tell people all the time, this is the best team I've ever been a part of. And I'm not saying this (expletive). This is real (expletive). All the stuff we've been through -- we got rid of all the guys. In a sense, it's us. Everyone plays their role, everyone does their job.”

All of which made that loss to the Jaguars sting so badly.

“It got pulled away from us,” he said. “That's why we have to go to the drawing board and fix it, for when we get this chance next year.”

The Bills' No. 2 cornerback, E.J. Gaines, is also a free agent, as is veteran Shareece Wright, who was No. 4 on the depth chart.

Dawson gets second interview

Bills assistant director of college scouting Lake Dawson has had a second interview with the Carolina Panthers for their general manager opening, according to a report from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

Dawson, 46, has 23 years of NFL experience, including six as a wide receiver and 17 in scouting. He previously interviewed for the Panthers’ GM job in 2013, as well as for the same opening in Miami (2014), Tampa Bay (2014) and Chicago (2015).

The Bills have already lost one executive this offseason, as vice president of player personnel Brian Gaine left to become the Texans’ general manager. His position has not been filled.

Dawson’s candidacy shows what a good job General Manager Brandon Beane did surrounding himself with quality personnel men last year after he replaced Doug Whaley.

The ‘needy’ list

The Bills made the playoffs in 2017. Keep that in mind when reading Sports Illustrated in the coming days.

In the Feb. 12 issue, Andy Benoit ranks the NFL’s neediest teams, with the Bills coming in third on that list, behind only the New York Jets (5-11 in 2017) and Cleveland Browns (0-16).

"The Bills’ biggest need is at QB, but that’s true for just about any team without a franchise guy in that spot," Benoit writes. "Digging deeper, look to the D-line. Coach Sean McDermott is a creative, effective blitz schemer. But he more often plays traditional zone coverages, which require a potent four-man rush. Buffalo had just 27 sacks last season, tied for third fewest in the NFL, and you can see that reflected on film: Their front four rarely controlled games. This roster’s only viable pass rusher is defensive end Jerry Hughes, who can go quiet for stretches. The Bills need an edge bender opposite him, as well as a penetrator inside, especially if 34-year-old free agent Kyle Williams does not return."

Benoit is spot on about the Bills' biggest need, and the situation they face along the defensive line. In addition to needing more sacks, the line was a big reason why the team's run defense finished 29th against the run. Shaq Lawson, a 2016 first-round pick, hasn't come close to meeting those expectations, while replacing the traded Marcell Dareus proved to be a challenge.

Even with that being the case, it seems odd to see the Bills ahead of teams like Chicago (5-11), Indianapolis (4-12) and Denver (5-11) on this list. While the Bears and Colts have quarterbacks, they are lacking talent at several other positions, while the Broncos are in the same quarterback hole as the Bills. Putting a team that made the postseason behind them on any 'neediest' list feels like a stretch. The good news for the Bills is they've got a decent amount of space under the salary cap and eight draft picks in the first five rounds with which to fill those needs.

Three thoughts …

• The Buffalo News’ Vic Carucci profiled Ohio State center Billy Price this week, pointing out that, in the wake of Eric Wood’s retirement, the position suddenly became a need for the Bills. If the team stays put with the 21st and 22nd picks in the first round, Price could be an option to replace Wood. Count me among those who thinks that would be bananas. The Bills have a capable replacement already on the roster in Ryan Groy, who stepped in for an injured Wood over the final seven weeks of the 2016 season and did an admirable job.

If those two first-round picks aren’t used as trade bait to move up and select a quarterback (which would be my goal), there are bigger needs to address.

• Reaction to my first mock draft of the season – which had the Bills trading up to the third overall pick and taking Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield – ranged from “sign me up” to “that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

Mayfield is a polarizing prospect for some, given his lack of ideal height (he measure just over 6-foot-0 at the Senior Bowl) and questions about some of his on- and off-field decision-making.

"I know I'm proud of who I am, I'm a confident kid, but if you sit down and talk to me, I do have good character and you'll know what I'm all about," Mayfield said during an appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter in December. "I'm a competitor and I have love for the game and sometimes that can be misunderstood a bit."

Given the number of teams that need a quarterback, the chances look slim that the Bill can stay at No. 21 (or No. 22) and draft any of the projected top four at the position – Southern Cal’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Mayfield.

• The Bills apparently had some competition for new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. According to former ESPN reporter Ed Warder, the Colts wanted to hire Daboll, but he chose Buffalo for "family reasons."

It makes sense that Daboll would have been a candidate in Indianapolis, where Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had an agreement to become the Colts' head coach, only to back out at the last minute. Daboll worked under McDaniels for several years in New England. Werder did not indicate what Daboll's role with the Colts would have been, but his experience would have made him a logical choice for offensive coordinator.

Daboll has to be feeling even better about his decision now given what happened with McDaniels, who shocked the NFL by going back on his word and staying in New England. Two names to keep an eye on for the Colts now are Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier -- who interviewed for the job Saturday -- and Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

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