This is the ninth in series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 26 start of training camp.
There was a sense of trepidation about the cornerback position when the 2017 Buffalo Bills season began.
The team had bid goodbye to Stephon Gilmore via free agency and Ronald Darby and Kevon Seymour via trades. Yes, first-round pick Tre'Davious White was added. But he would be thrust into the No. 1 cornerback role, flanked by a cast of Maybes and I-Hope-Sos.
Lo and behold, the Bills pieced the position together better than expected. White exceeded the expectations by making the NFL's all-rookie team and finishing second to New Orleans cornerback Marshon Lattimore in voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Newcomer E.J. Gaines was competent at No. 2 corner, turning in the best season of his four-year NFL career even though he missed five games to injury.
Still, there's plenty of room for improvement. The Bills ranked 20th in passing yards allowed and 18th in third-down conversions allowed, although both of those rankings were greatly impacted by the team's lackluster pass rush.
So the Bills made a lot of moves this offseason in an effort to make the cornerback position better than capable.
Returnees: Tre'Davious White, Lafayette Pitts, Breon Borders.
Newcomers: Vontae Davis (free agent), Phillip Gaines (free agent), Taron Johnson (draft), Levi Wallace (free agent), Ryan Carter (free agent).
Departures: E.J. Gaines (free agent/signed with Cleveland), Leonard Johnson (free agent), Shareece Wright (free agent).
What the numbers say: How important is depth at cornerback? Last year's slot corner, Leonard Johnson, played 60.7 percent of the snaps, seventh most of any Bills defender. Fourth corner Shareece Wright played a substantial 41 percent of the defensive snaps. The coaches decided to move on from both of those players. Johnson was familiar with Sean McDermott's system from Carolina and didn't give up many big plays. But he allowed the most catches (59) and yards (355) from the slot in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. (In fairness, he also played 50 more snaps in the slot than all but six other corners in the NFL).
What to expect: Davis, the free-agent signee from Indianapolis, has a better resume than E.J. Gaines. He's a former first-round pick who has made two Pro Bowls (in 2014 and 2015). Gaines arguably was underappreciated in Buffalo. He was a good scheme fit and he played tough. Still, it's no stretch to expect Davis will be an upgrade opposite White, as long as he stays healthy. Davis missed most of last season with a groin injury that he suffered in preseason. He had surgery in November. But he was a full participant in the Bills' minicamp.
The questions for the Bills to resolve in training camp are the three to four depth positions behind White and Davis.
The battle to replace Johnson in the slot is between Phillip Gaines, a fifth-year veteran signed from Kansas City, and Taron Johnson, the fourth-round pick from Weber State. Let's compare their measureables to those of Leonard Johnson.
Most teams keep five cornerbacks and some keep six. Lafayette Pitts spent the last 11 weeks on the Bills' roster last year after being claimed off waivers from Miami. He only saw 30 snaps. He's entering his third NFL training camp. He could be pushed hard for the fifth spot by Alabama's Levi Watkins, who doesn't have great athleticism but is smart and has length (32 3-4-inch arms).
The other two corners have the ability to push for a spot. Breon Borders was claimed off the Raiders' practice squad last December. Ryan Carter is an undersized, overachiever who got a lot of big-game experience at Clemson.
The Bills have upgraded their raw ability. We will see how the execution unfolds at St. John Fisher College.