This is the next piece in a series analyzing the Bills' most significant questions entering the offseason. Part 7: Is Levi Wallace the answer as the No. 2 cornerback?
It’s hard to overstate just how important Levi Wallace’s emergence was for the Buffalo Bills’ defense in 2018.
A revolving door at right cornerback saw Phillip Gaines, Vontae Davis and Ryan Lewis walk through it before Wallace entered the lineup in Week 10 against the New York Jets. From that point on, the job was his.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air for us,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “Here’s an undrafted free agent who you think you're going to develop to be a guy down the road, who might help come in and contribute maybe in his second or third year. Here he is, came in, started for us, and really has settled down that right corner spot. It was a rotation throughout the year, and it was kind of problematic. What he has done has been so, so impressive.”
So much so that the analytics website Pro Football Focus named Wallace its top rookie cornerback for 2018. The player he finished ahead of, Cleveland’s Denzel Ward, was the fourth overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft. Not bad for a former walk-on with the Crimson Tide who, before becoming a starter in Buffalo, was on the practice squad.
“Probably, but I believe in myself,” Wallace said when asked if he felt like he turned heads in 2018. “It starts from within. I had my family's support the whole time. I just wanted that opportunity.”
Once it came, Wallace made the most of it, which is something he's done before. He went from walk-on to starter at Alabama, making three interceptions and 14 passes defensed without allowing a single touchdown in his senior season, which ended with a national championship.
“To not only start a game, but continue to develop and get better, it encourages all of us as a coaching staff, that maybe we found something in this young man,” Frazier said.
Before Wallace came on the scene, the cornerback spot opposite Tre'Davious White proved to be problematic. Gaines didn't work out as a free-agent addition, Davis became a punchline by retiring at halftime in Week 2, and Ryan Lewis couldn't build on a strong debut against Minnesota in Week 3, eventually getting benched. All of that was forgotten by the end of the year.
There are no signs that the NFL’s pass-happy ways are going to go away any time soon, particularly with the wave of young, offensive-minded head coaches hired this season. It stands to reason that if teams are throwing it more and more, defenses need to invest in multiple cornerbacks to stop, or at least slow, them.
“That position in our league with the way teams pass now, if you don't get it solidified, you may be OK on defense, but to really be a championship defense, your corners really need to play well for you,” Frazier said. “If we have quieted down the questions regarding the right corner position, we'll be so much farther ahead going into 2019. That would be really great for us.”
The questions have certainly been quieted, but not silenced entirely. It’s a good bet the Bills will look to bring in competition for Wallace to make sure he doesn’t get complacent. That would most likely take the form of a veteran addition in free agency. Wallace knows that a seven-game audition doesn’t guaranteed him anything in 2019.
“Nothing, really,” he said when asked what he thought he proved in 2018. “Nothing that I've wanted to accomplish yet has been accomplished. Still left a lot of interceptions out there, a couple dropped balls, so just keep working each and every day.”
According to PFF, Wallace didn’t allow more than two catches over any of the final seven games – the longest such active streak in the NFL. In December, he allowed a total of eight catches on 14 targets in playing 138 coverage snaps over five games. Only two of those catches went for first downs.
“I came with the same preparation when I was on the practice squad as I do now,” he said. “Maybe just a little bit more focus on who my matchups are, since I didn't really have to match up on anyone on practice squad. Just do my job, you know? Just trying to go in there and make as many plays as I can. It's a hard business to be in, so I try to go into every week with the mindset that I have to compete and be good each and every week for the team.”
So where does Wallace need to improve? It starts with tackling. He missed seven tackles in seven games, usually the result of poor angles to the ball. At 6-foot-0 and 179 pounds, he’s on the smaller side for for an NFL player. That means plenty of time in the weight room this offseason.
On the two big plays Wallace did allow in 2018 – a 29-yard completion to Jacksonville’s Donte Moncrief in Week 12 and a 24-yard completion to Detroit’s Kenny Golladay in Week 15, Wallace had good position each time, but saw the wide receiver wrestle the ball away from him.
Because he's not the strongest player, Wallace has to rely on technique. Luckily, playing in a Nick Saban-led defense at Alabama makes that a strength of his game. Wallace is still looking for his first career interception, although he did make three passes defensed in seven games.
“The more you play in this defense, the more comfortable you get,” he said. “Especially playing with the players that we have here, it's all about communication and chemistry. The more that I keep playing with them, the more comfortable I'll feel.”
His close to the 2018 season came as a surprise to just about everyone – except Wallace himself.
“I mean, there was never any doubt,” he said. “I was just looking for the opportunity. Football is about opportunities and what you do with them. Just moving to the offseason, keep building on that. Find out ways how I can be better -- be one of the top corners in the league for next year.”