Only one player in the NFL took more snaps as a slot cornerback in 2017 than Leonard Johnson did for the Buffalo Bills.
Johnson was on the field for 423 snaps in the slot, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. That ranked behind only the 430 of Washington’s Kendall Fuller.
So even though the position may not be classified as a starter, it’s still a vital part of the Bills’ defense. Johnson, however, wasn’t retained as a free agent (he’s still unsigned), meaning a new player will step into his spot.
The two players who handled most of that work in spring practices are veteran Phillip Gaines, who was signed as a free agent after four years with Kansas City, and rookie fourth-round draft pick Taron Johnson. Gaines has been with the starters when the team turns to its nickel package.
“He played in a good defensive system in Kansas City,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said of Gaines. “He’s played outside as well, so he offers some position flexibility. He’s long. He’s got some experience there, so he’s a smart player that I’ve been impressed with to this point. We’ll see how that position unfolds at camp.”
Gaines was a third-round pick of the Chiefs in 2014. He played in 41 games and started 16 over the past four seasons but was expendable after Kansas City acquired Fuller in a trade with the Redskins.
“You always want to feel wanted,” he said of the Bills' targeting him in free agency. “We're human at the end of the day. To come into the type of atmosphere that they have here — it's just so family-oriented. It just makes you feel welcome and really want to play well for them.”
Last year, Gaines took 216 snaps in the slot, according to PFF. That tied for 29th in the NFL. He allowed 20 catches for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
“Especially in today's game, there’s so much '11' personnel (one tight end and one running back), a lot of fast receivers on the field,” he said Thursday after the Bills’ final minicamp practice of the spring. “You always have to be ready. Each team has different personnel. Some go big with tight ends, others have a lot of speed receivers. You've just got to take it week by week.”
The Bills decided they needed an upgrade from Johnson, who was targeted an NFL-leading 83 times and gave up 59 catches, also most in the league. He was on the field for nearly 61 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, which drives home just how important the role is. At least in the spring, it has been Gaines who has gotten the chance to take that over.
“It's been a nice adjustment. It's something to challenge yourself,” he said. “You never want to be stagnant. The challenge makes you come out to work every day.
“I view everybody as a starter, because just over the course of the year, everybody has to be ready," Gaines said. "So me lining up there right now, it is what it is. In terms of me coming in playing, I'm happy with how everything went through the spring. You know, just got to keep grinding through the summer and come back ready for camp.”
Gaines played collegiately at Rice, setting a program record with 38 passes defensed. He was a two-time All-Conference USA selection.
“I came in playing corner, so that's always going to be what I'm used to,” he said. “Nickel, it's a totally different world in there, in terms of zone drops, where your eyes need to be, stuff like that. In terms of versatility, you just try to get in where you fit in. Throughout the course of the year, you never know who's going to be up and who's going to be down, so you've just got to be ready for both.”