This is the eighth in a series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 25 start of training camp.
The Buffalo Bills have a greater sense of security in the defensive backfield than in any other unit on the team entering the 2019 training camp.
In Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills have one of the better safety tandems in the NFL.
In Tre’Davious White, the Bills have a reliable No. 1 cornerback.
Those three were the coverage stars who helped the Bills rank No. 1 in the NFL in passing yards allowed last season. They have played 94 percent of the snaps or more each of the past two seasons, and they’re entering their third year in the same defensive system.
Every defensive back on the roster at the end of last season is back. And the Bills added two veteran free agents at cornerback and one draft pick at safety to increase the competition level.
Hyde expects the continuity to make the defense even better.
“I’m going into my third year,” he said. “After a play is called, we discuss the play. Now there’s a lot more guys on defense, whether it’s Matt Milano, Tremaine (Edmunds), Tre’Davious, we’re all talking the same. The more brains that are on one page, we’re going to be a lot better.”
Returnees: Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Rafael Bush, Ryan Lewis, Lafayette Pitts, Dean Marlowe, Siran Neal, Denzel Rice.
Newcomers: Kevin Johnson (Texans), E.J. Gaines (Browns), Jaquan Johnson (draft, sixth round) Cam Lewis (undrafted).
Key numbers: The best example of how assignment sound the Bills’ secondary is can be seen in how few big plays the defense allows. The Bills gave up the fewest pass plays of 40-or-more yards (two) and the fewest pass plays of 20-plus yards (36). It speaks to the defensive philosophy of Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier. And Hyde and Poyer are rock solid on the back end. They don’t make big coverage busts.
What to expect: The biggest question is whether second-year man Levi Wallace will withstand the challenges from Kevin Johnson and Gaines and hold onto the starting outside cornerback job opposite White.
Wallace, the former walk-on-turned defensive stalwart at the University of Alabama, started the last seven games of last season. He took all the first-team repetitions in the spring.
Kevin Johnson is a former first-round pick of the Texans with the best athleticism of the three. Gaines started 11 games for the Bills in 2017. The Bills let him walk in free agency. He went to Cleveland but played only six games. The 2018 seasons for both Kevin Johnson and Gaines were shortened by concussions.
Taron Johnson, the fourth-round pick from last season, has a strong grip on the slot corner job. The Bills need to settle on a cornerback to be his backup in the slot and figure out who are their best options when they use a “big nickel,” meaning a safety or even a small linebacker in the slot.
The Bills used five defensive backs on 78 percent of the snaps last season, according to News statistics. They used a true cornerback in the slot on 42 percent of the defensive snaps. They used a “big nickel” — three safeties and two corners — on 36.8 percent of the snaps, News charts showed.
“We’d like to be able to get some depth at that position,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of the “backup” to Taron Johnson in the slot. “Last year Rafael Bush did a good job for us in that role. We’re going to let Siran Neal get at shot at that position, as well. We’ve got Denzel Rice taking some snaps there. We may even give Kevin Johnson a shot at it as well. We’ve got E.J. Gaines, who a couple years ago played there at times. He’ll get some snaps there. So we’ve got a group of guys that will be battling for that backup slot position.”
The Bills are sure to keep five cornerbacks. In 2017 they kept four safeties. In 2018 they opened the season with five safeties.
The 32-year-old Bush is a near lock to be the No. 3 safety. The next safety spot is a battle among Neal, Dean Marlowe and Johnson, who was a team captain at the University of Miami. He’s a downhill-inclined safety who likes to hit. Neal worked at corner all spring and could count as a corner or safety.
Story topics: 2019 training camp preview