(WKBW) - For the Buffalo Bills and every franchise in the NFL, the reality of the offseason has set in. Preparations by teams of how to attack the offseason, their own free agents, and late April’s draft are starting to take hold.
So as the next deadlines start to creep up, WKBW.com is taking a hard look at the roster and evaluating what happened in 2017, what could be on the horizon in 2018, and a recommendation for what to do moving forward. The grades you’ll see attached to the players are the result of film study of each and every week throughout the 2017 season for the Buffalo Bills.
Up next, we take a look at a position defined by changes in 2017 -- cornerback:
2017 In Review
*In order of 2017 Grade
2017 Season GPA: 3.18 (Snap Count: 1,148)
2018 Contract Status: ~$2.294 million cap hit, signed through 2020 with a team option for 2021
Age: 23 (DOB: 1/16/1995)
- The impact of Tre’Davious White in his first year of starting simply cannot be understated. Not only was he one of the best players on the field throughout the 2017 season, he stepped in immediately right as spring workouts began as a starter, made it so they could move on from a player (Ronald Darby) that didn’t fit their scheme, and was one of the best cornerbacks in all the NFL. It’s a shame that the voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year was as lopsided as it was because White deserved a lot more serious consideration than the four votes he was given. As he continues to grow in Sean McDermott’s scheme, he will enter 2018 as the unquestioned top cornerback with the ability to shadow an opponent’s top wide receiver. He was a revelation in just his rookie season, and his ceiling is as high as you’ll find on the Bills roster right now. To trade down, gain an extra first-round pick, and hit a home run with White as a late first-round pick was a truly phenomenal job by the Bills last April.
2017 Season GPA: 2.89 (Snap Count: 712)
2018 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 25 (DOB: 2/23/1992)
- While he didn’t have quite the impact that Tre’Davious White did, you have to give some credit to both E.J. Gaines, and to GM Brandon Beane for acquiring a player that fits into the defensive scheme as well as he did — and with so little time to do so ahead of the 2017 regular season. The Bills relied on Gaines as their starter opposite White, without any depth to speak of behind them, and when both were on the field they formed one of the better tandems in 2017. Gaines, however, struggled with injuries for much of the season. He missed a total of five games due to injury, but in his 11 games active, he also didn’t play the full plate of snaps four of those contests. So, that brings us to a total of nine games — more than half of the schedule — that the lineup was affected due to an injury to Gaines. Maybe it was just a matter of a string of bad luck, but that’s the one-year impression that he’s left on both the Bills and their fans in one season. However, he’s a really good fit in the zone defense, and when available was a good starting player for a secondary that helped steady the ship in multiple games for the Bills this season.
2017 Season GPA: 2.55 (Snap Count: 705)
2018 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 27 (DOB: 3/30/1990)
- I have to admit, after what I had seen in training camp and in the preseason, I had my doubts about Leonard Johnson, his lack of athleticism, and whether it was a good fit as the nickel cornerback in the defense. However, when it got to the regular season, Johnson showed he’s got a lot more to him than I had originally thought. Sean McDermott loves Leonard Johnson, with the two having been together now in two different NFL spots, and it’s a clear part of his skill-set that McDermott just loves: tackling. Johnson put a stop to so many plays throughout the season because of his sound tackling — many of which that came in one-on-one situations. Now, he’s not a perfect player in coverage, but being sound in an area that McDermott values as highly as he does in his scheme will continue to create opportunities for Johnson.
2017 Season GPA: 2.37 (Snap Count: 32)
2018 Contract Status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Age: 25 (DOB: 9/24/1992)
- It was a bit of a yo-yo year for Lafayette Pitts. Shortly after being claimed off of waivers, Pitts surpassed veteran Shareece Wright on the depth chart and was active for a stretch of three games in the middle of the year. However, after a poor performance against New England in Week 13, it led to Wright moving ahead of Pitts and into the lineup when Leonard Johnson couldn’t play in Week 14 against Indianapolis, and again when E.J. Gaines suffered an injury against Miami in Week 15 and then couldn’t start Week 16 against the Patriots. As an exclusive rights free agent, it’s quite likely we see him in the spring and summer trying to earn a spot on the roster in 2018.
2017 Season GPA: 1.89 (Snap Count: 455)
2018 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 30 (DOB: 4/8/1987)
- It was truly a tough season for the veteran Shareece Wright, who proved to be a solid tackler, but also a bit of a liability in pass coverage — and one that opponents targeted when he was in the game against a far superior wide receiver. In 2017, he didn’t have the athleticism to make up the ground that you need to when dropping back into zone coverage. When he had to play man-to-man, Wright struggled to keep up with his assignments on both quick-hitting routes and on deep plays. He’s a good locker room presence and someone that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was comfortable with based on their time in Baltimore, but the team’s confidence level in him clearly dipped as the season went on. He went from potential starter in the summer, to backup player, to inactive on gamely all within a three-month span. As an unrestricted free agent, they might bring him back on a low contract just for familiarity and in case they can’t fill out the rest of the roster, but if they find some players to fill out the cornerback spot, I think there’s a large case for them to move on from him going into 2018.
Those that did not have a snap in 2017 but are signed for 2018: Breon Borders
Recommendations for 2018
1) Try to re-sign E.J. Gaines below market value, and if not, let him walk
- Bringing back E.J. Gaines is probably something they would like to do, but only if the cost is worth it to them — especially seeing as how his exit could yield a compensatory draft pick in 2019. At the current moment, Spotrac.com (who does a fantastic job with market valuations of impending free agents, among other things) projects his potential average salary on the open market as an unrestricted free agent at just over ~$9.3 million per season. To me, for a player that had nine out of 16 games affected by his individual injury status and with how good this head coach and GM are at identifying starting caliber players in the secondary for low costs, means that would be too much for a player of his caliber. Along the same line, if he gets that type of market value, that could be a fourth-round compensatory selection in 2019, with the potential for it to upgrade to a third-round pick. According to OverTheCap.com, the Baltimore Ravens for Ricky Wagner ($9.5 million average per year) and the Green Bay Packers for T.J. Lang ($9.5 million average per year) are projected to each come away with a third-round pick for those players. If Gaines gets in the $10 million range, the Bills should just trust in themselves to find another starting caliber player, and get the compensatory pick for him. If they can get Gaines signed to a contract worth somewhere around $6 million or $7 million per season, that would be worth it… but with free agency so close and the cornerback market being a bit crazy, you’d have to think Gaines will want to test the waters.
2) Re-sign Leonard Johnson
- Based on the cornerback depth and the way it’s set up at the moment, along with the serviceability that Leonard Johnson provided as the full-time nickel cornerback for the Bills in 2017, I think it would be in their best interest to re-sign Johnson for an incredibly manageable contract. That way, even if they find someone to be in the lineup ahead of him, they can keep his locker room presence which, as we know, is quite important to them. They would also start to have some dependable depth in the event of injury to one of their top players at the position. Plus, if they can’t address it because of all the needs they have this offseason, another year of Leonard Johnson as the nickel at the age of 28 isn’t one that should make you run away from the television and hide your eyes. He’s a good tackler, a dependable person, and if he plays at the same level or slightly above next season, can help keep things mostly steady in the secondary while the three playmakers (Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer) make the game-changing plays. I think re-signing Johnson is a no-brainer.
3) Draft at least one cornerback
- The Bills still have Tre’Davious White, and an intriguing developmental option in Breon Borders (a player that was outstanding in training camp and the preseason for Oakland in 2017), but that’s all they have on the roster at the moment. They can bring back Johnson and Pitts, but there is a realistic chance they’ll be without E.J. Gaines because of the looming threat of free agency. However, with or without Gaines, they need to add young players with some starting potential to the roster at cornerback to build their depth -- which was non-existent in 2017. Sean McDermott has a knack for finding zone-based cornerbacks that can immediately help his scheme later in the draft, and I’d expect them to take a swing on a player at that position somewhere between the second and fifth round — granted that they have their full complement of draft picks still available to them.