This is the last in a series on the Buffalo Bills’ key needs entering NFL free agency. This installment looks at lower-priority positions on the Bills’ list: Linebacker, cornerback and running back.
Once you get past the Bills’ obvious target positions in free agency, there are a few spots worth bolstering.
One is outside linebacker, especially with Lorenzo Alexander playing what likely will be his final season in the NFL.
An obvious candidate is Anthony Barr of the Minnesota Vikings. While his early tenure might be spent answering questions about when Bills quarterback Josh Allen hurdled him to pick up a first down last September, Barr could be a good fit in Buffalo. He has shown effectiveness in rushing the quarterback, where Alexander has excelled in his time with the Bills, and in pass coverage.
Since joining the Vikings as the ninth overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, Barr, who turns 27 on March 18, has established himself as one of the better outside linebackers in the league. In 2018, he was selected to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl after making 55 total tackles, including eight tackles for loss, with three sacks. He also had a forced fumble and a pair of pass defenses.
In five seasons, Barr has made 71 starts, has 338 tackles, 13.5 sacks, and 22 passes defensed. He has also forced seven fumbles, with four recoveries (including one he returned for a touchdown) and an interception.
Another spot that might be on the Bills’ free-agent radar is cornerback. The team has struggled to find a reliable starter opposite Tre’Davious White, an exercise that reached a low point when 2018 free-agent acquisition Vontae Davis retired at halftime of a Week 2 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Rookie Levi Wallace, signed as an undrafted free agent from Alabama, held that starting job for the final seven games, and figures to have a good chance of keeping it. After Wallace’s first NFL start, Nov. 11 against the New York Jets, coach Sean McDermott praised his performance, noting that he didn’t think “the moment was too big” for the rookie.
Wallace had impressed coaches with his work during the preseason and in regular-season practices, and steadily gained enough of their trust to crack the starting lineup. “I think some of it had to do with the struggles that we were having at the position itself as you’re trying to find someone to give you some stability at the position,” McDermott said.
Fellow rookie Taron Johnson was impressive as a slot corner before suffering a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve at the end of the season.
Given the Bills’ emphasis on zone coverage, there isn’t an overwhelming need for a lock-down corner, which means the Bills could get by with someone who is more solid than great. Besides, the free agency market doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of cornerback talent. That might have been the reason the Bills had Kevin Johnson, a cornerback released by the Houston Texans Tuesday, in for a visit Wednesday.
Arguably the most intriguing candidate hitting the open market is Jason Verrett of the Los Angeles Chargers. Injuries have limited him to only 25 games in four seasons, with mere five combined in 2016 and 2017. A torn Achilles caused him to miss all of last season. But given the modest salary he would likely receive, some team could get a decent bargain should the 27-year-old Verrett return to the form he showed in 2015 when, a year after joining the Chargers as a first-round pick from TCU, he had three interceptions in 14 games.
Although LeSean McCoy will be 31 before the start of the season and the Bills’ ground game was awful last year, it’s hard to make a case for running back to rank anywhere but near the bottom of their free-agent wish list.
For one thing, they insist they’ll stick with McCoy as their starter. For another, they like the depth Chris Ivory and Marcus Murphy provide.
Recent history suggests the Bills would probably find their best running-back value on the third day of the draft, or in the undrafted free agent market.
“We'll see what happens, but that's another position that maybe there's competition out there in free agency or the draft,” McDermott told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. “But if not, we feel that those top two guys are guys that have started and played. Chris has started and been a thousand-yard rusher before and I thought when Shady missed a few games, I thought Chris came in and did a nice job.
“They're two different style runners. LeSean's more east-west and he’s going straight, hundred miles an hour, whether he runs into you or you get out of the way. Again, we're trying to add competition everywhere. We're not shying away from running back either, if the right opportunity’s there.”