OPINION: 2021 State of the Bills: Cornerback

There will be competition for one starting spot opposite of Tre'Davious White
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My "2021 State of the Bills" series continues with a look at the cornerbacks as the team heads into the offseason:

Under contract:
• Tre’Davious White
• Taron Johnson
• Siran Neal
• Dane Jackson
• Cam Lewis

Pending Free Agents:
• Josh Norman
• Levi Wallace (RFA)

State of the position:

There’s one big question looming at this position for 2021: who starts opposite Tre’Davious White?

The answer may very well be someone already on the roster, as it has for the better part of the last two seasons. But is it that same person?

If it’s going to be Levi Wallace again, the Buffalo Bills will either have to give him a minimum qualifying offer of, most likely, north of $2 million to retain his rights or let him become an unrestricted free agent, try to re-sign him on a lesser deal, but then take their chances that another team doesn’t sign him away.

Wallace has been the object of a lot of criticism over the last couple of years for giving up too many plays, but when you play opposite White, you’re going to be targeted a lot and that can happen. He’s certainly had his inconsistencies, but he’s also made some plays, and has given the team a very good value over his first three years since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018.

Wallace missed four games due to injury last year, but otherwise has started every single contest for the Bills over the last two seasons, often rotating with Kevin Johnson in 2019 and then Josh Norman last year.

It will be interesting to see how the team plays his pending restricted free agency. If they believe he is their starter next year, paying the minimum qualifying offer shouldn’t be an issue. But if they view him as strictly a backup going forward, that may be too much to pay.

Norman was signed to a one-year deal, is now 33-years-old, suffered a hamstring injury in training camp and missed the first three games, came back and re-injured that same hamstring which forced him to miss four more games, then finally settled into a regular rotation on defense over the last three regular season contests and then the playoffs.

He was a nice veteran backup to have, but certainly didn’t bounce back to the type of player he was with the Carolina Panthers several years ago. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent, and I can’t see him on this team next season.

Taron Johnson’s season was quite the roller coaster ride. He was entrenched as the team’s starting nickel cornerback to start the season, but really struggled early-on, so much so that he lost his starting job to Cam Lewis prior to the Week 6 game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Then Lewis got hurt on the very first series of that game, and Johnson came right back in to play the majority of it.

From there, he never relinquished his starting role again, getting better and better as the season went on, including two of the signature plays of the entire 2020 season, both interception returns for touchdowns at Bills Stadium. The first came on Sunday Night Football in Week 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, then the exciting 101-yard return against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game.

Johnson is really tough, but that toughness and willingness to get his smaller frame involved has cost him some injuries through his first three seasons. But he played 16 games last year, and is still under contract for one more season on his rookie deal. He’ll go to next camp as the incumbent at the position, but Lewis will present competition.

For the second straight season, Lewis was waived by the club after training camp, but signed to the practice squad. However, he finally got a shot to play in his first NFL action this past year, all coming on special teams until starting Week 5 against the Tennessee Titans when the team was down several defensive backs. He then got that Week 6 game referenced above when he was injured on the first series. The University at Buffalo product works hard and will fight for a job next year once again.

Dane Jackson became the darling of the Bills’ fanbase with the way he performed in his limited action from the very first game he saw the field against the New York Jets in Week 7. In that win for the Bills, he collected an interception and broke up two passes. He saw significant time on defense in two more games later in the season. The first was in Week 10 against the Arizona Cardinals when he racked up eight total tackles, a pass breakup, and a fumble recovery. Then in the Week 17 finale against the Miami Dolphins, the rookie made a big tackle for a loss near the Dolphins' goal line and had two more pass breakups.

Jackson is technically sound and is a tremendous tackler, as well. Fans wondered all season why he wasn’t on the active roster and worried he would get poached away by another team since he was on the practice squad, and therefore a free agent. If another team had come calling, there’s a good chance the Bills would have signed him to the active roster to make sure they kept him. That wasn’t necessary, and now he goes into next season as a viable candidate to possibly win the starting job opposite White, or at the very least play a significant role at the position, since he can play both inside and outside.

Siran Neal is a very valuable piece to the Bills' secondary, able to play cornerback and safety. But he’s truly become one of the team’s top special teams players, especially as a gunner on the punt team. Neal finished with the second-highest snap total on special teams of any Bills player, behind only Tyler Matakevich, at almost 58%. He will be entering the final year of his rookie deal next season.

Even though there looks to be some healthy competition for the starting spot opposite White, cornerback may very much be on the table with the team’s first round draft pick, 30th overall. A first round talent to pair opposite White would solidify the group for quite a while, considering White is under contract for five more seasons.

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2021 State of the Bills:
Quarterback
Running back
Tight end
Wide receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle
Defensive end
Linebacker

Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports

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