(WKBW) — As the sting from the end of the 2018 season starts to lessen for the Buffalo Bills, the reality of the offseason begins for the front office and coaching staff. And in doing so, they're putting together a strategy of how to navigate the offseason -- from free agency to the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the weeks pass by teams, get closer and closer to the annual offseason deadlines. In preparation, 7ABC will take an in-depth look at the current roster while evaluating what happened in 2018, what it could tell us as to the team's plans for 2019, and some author recommendations of how to march forward. The grades attached to each player is the result of an in-depth film study done by 7ABC every week through the 2018 season.
Up next, a position that might have as much long-term security as you'll find on the roster, cornerback:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
2018 Season GPA: 3.20 (Snap Count: 961)
2019 Contract Status: ~$2.75 million cap hit, signed through 2020 season with a team option for 2021
Age: 24 (1/16/1995)
- In 2017, Tre'Davious White took over a starting role for the Bills as a rookie and became one of the best at his position in the league. In 2018, White was an at times dominant player that allowed the Bills to change the way they called their defense and improved his overall GPA from his rookie season. When the opponent had a dominant wide receiver on their roster, or a player that was considerably better than the rest of his receiving teammates, the Bills had White shadow the receiver to attempt to shut him down. The Bills didn't run a man-to-man coverage with White on every snap, so he wasn't on that designated receiver 100-percent of the time. However, when he was on the top receiver, not many were able to get the better of him. Of course, the handful of big beats near the end of the season make it seem like he was worse than he was, but for the vast majority of White's time on the field, he was closing the door on the potential for receptions. He shows great awareness in the zone scheme, he tackles well, he has make-up speed, and even added an interception in the final week of the season. If there is one thing that White could improve on, it's in finishing the play with the interception -- but that's merely nitpicking. The Bills have a great player on their hands with White, and one that they have under roster control for the next three seasons at least.
2018 Season GPA: 3.04 (Snap Count: 405)
2019 Contract Status: $731,517 cap hit, signed through 2021 season
Age: 22 (7/27/1996)
- If you're looking the reasons why the Bills took a massive jump in their defensive rankings in the NFL from 2017 to 2018, you can look at three separate positions. The middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, the one-technique defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, and the nickel cornerback Taron Johnson provided the three of the biggest jumps at individual positions on defense. In the case of Johnson, he was a drastic improvement from what they had at nickel corner in 2017, bringing the grade up from Leonard Johnson's 2.55 to Johnson's sterling 3.04 performance. For those wondering the difference, that's akin to upgrading a slightly below average contributor into one of the top ten players on the team, with room for growth as Johnson gets more time on task. Above all else, Johnson's ability to tackle made him into an impact defender to shut plays down before the offensive player was able to get out in space. Johnson provided strength in coverage as well, and he didn't suffer a terrible beat for all the time he was on the field. Like Tre'Davious White, the Bills have Johnson under control through the 2021 season and have to be feeling good about the potential of their fourth-round steal moving forward.
2018 Season GPA: 2.83 (Snap Count: 415)
2019 Contract Status: $570,000 cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 23 (6/12/1995)
- When Phillip Gaines was in the starting lineup, the Bills had an evident weakness for teams to expose. In the case of Ryan Lewis, the level of play improved but still had blowup potential. It wasn't until undrafted rookie Levi Wallace entered the lineup that the Bills had a steadying force on the side of the field opposite Tre'Davious White. Wallace is a seemingly perfect fit for Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier's zone-based scheme. Wallace has incredibly long arms, a calm demeanor that helps him diagnose plays by drifting in the zone to disrupt the play, a good reaction time to the throw, and he's a great tackler that won the majority of his one-on-one opportunities. Wallace played with the poise of a veteran player even without having a single snap on defense before he made his first start of the season. The one area that he needs to get better is something he's probably heard his entire life. He needs to get stronger to become the player that his potential showed in his rookie season. If he develops his strength, that will help him when matched up at the line of scrimmage against more physical receivers. It will also help him win the contested catches that went against him -- with the catch by Detroit's Kenny Golladay coming to mind most significantly. With more strength and time on the field, Wallace has the potential to settle in as a long-term starter for the Bills. He showed enough ability and promise in just 415 snaps to warrant the Bills wanting to see if he can factor into their future, much like weakside linebacker Matt Milano did in 2017 with his 452 reps.
Players with fewer than 200 snaps
2018 Season GPA: 2.75 (Snap Count: 150)
2019 Contract Status: $570,000 cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 24 (4/15/1994)
- The Bills had been after Ryan Lewis for a while before ultimately claiming him off waivers after final cutdown day in 2018. They initially practiced him at nickel cornerback to work on some depth there, before finding that his most natural home in their defense is as a boundary cornerback. Once Phillip Gaines went down with an injury, it was up to Lewis to steady the ship. He was an improvement from Gaines, but also wasn't as steady of an option as they would have wanted. His best asset is his speed and ability to make up ground in a hurry. However, there were a few times where Lewis was caught flat-footed in coverage, and it got the better of him. While he showed some promise and a near pick-six in Green Bay in Week Four, he was picked on against Tennessee the following week, and was made inactive in favor of the returning Gaines by the time Week Six rolled around. While there was some inconsistency there, Lewis is someone to work with as the offseason approaches to develop dependable depth on the roster. With more time in the spring and summer as opposed to the regular season, they might even see if they can get the light to go on at nickel corner to offer some versatility and to be Taron Johnson's primary backup.
2018 Season GPA: 2.56 (Snap Count: 83)
2019 Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent
Age: 26 (9/24/1992)
- Going into 2018, the Bills didn't intend to have Lafayette Pitts play on defense unless it was necessary. If it weren't for Vontae Davis' mid-game retirement in Week Two and Tre'Davious White's injury in Week 17, the Bills wouldn't have had to. However, even in those two spots, Pitts did a commendable job not to be picked on by either opponent. However, the reason Pitts was on the team and active all 16 weeks is because of his work as a special teams player. Sean McDermott loves Pitts -- a player that he calls "Worm." Pitts played 64.01-percent of all special teams snaps in 2018 which trailed only linebacker Deon Lacey for the season.
2018 Season GPA: N/A (Snap Count: 0)
2019 Contract Status: $720,000 cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 25 (3/31/1993)
- The Bills signed Denzel Rice to the practice squad after their bye in Week Ten, and then promoted him to the active roster two weeks later. Rice worked in practice primarily as a nickel cornerback, and though he didn't receive a snap on defense, the team had him active all four of his weeks on the active roster. His primary role? You guessed it: special teams. In four games, Rice took 41.82-percent of the team's special teams snaps. Signed for next season, he'll be on the roster bubble trying to claim one of the depth and special teams spots for the 2019 campaign.
*Phillip Gaines took 367 snaps before being released in Week Ten
**Vontae Davis took 29 snaps before retiring at halftime and leaving the stadium in Week Two
***Dontae Johnson took 21 snaps in a four-week stint on the roster from Week Five through Week Eight, before being released in Week Nine
Recommendations for 2019
1) Don't rip the job away from Levi Wallace
- Based on the ability that I saw from Levi Wallace in his seven starts with the team, that's enough of a sample size to warrant giving him a full look in 2019 -- as long as he earns it in training camp and the preseason. I brought up Matt Milano in the context of Wallace before, and I don't think those two situations are all that different. I will admit, Milano showed potential game-changing ability, and a seismic upgrade based on what they had -- and Wallace still has a little to go in that respect. However, Wallace's talent and the consistency he showed was evident to see, and with a host of needs in the offseason, I don't believe the Bills should go out of their way to replace a potential ascending player in the starting lineup. Not to mention, Wallace is under the team's control on a low cap hit for the next three seasons as a signed player in 2019, an exclusive rights free agent in 2020, and a restricted free agent in 2021. If you look at the Carolina Panthers model, they mostly liked to find cornerbacks that fit their scheme outside of the first round with enough time to develop. I don't think they should hand the job to Wallace from the outset, but not giving him an opportunity to win the starting job -- based on what he put on film in 2018 -- would be a mistake in my view.
2) Sign a veteran in free agency for depth
- Along the lines of providing some competition for Wallace, this is where an experienced veteran player on a relatively low-cost contract would come into play for the Bills. Much in the way that the Bills challenged Matt Milano with Ramon Humber this past summer, you can argue they should take a similar course of action with Wallace to make him earn the starting job. The veteran, ideally, would provide leadership to an incredibly young cornerback room, depth on the outside in the event of an injury, and perhaps even some ability on special teams. Signing a high-priced cornerback in free agency (something the Panthers strayed away from while Brandon Beane was there) or drafting one in the first couple of rounds seems to be a bit of a luxury unless the talent is undeniably better over players at other positions.
3) Issue the restricted free agent tender to Lafayette Pitts
- Given how much Lafayette Pitts meant to the special teams units in 2018, providing him a restricted free agent tender seems to be a bit of a no-brainer. Sean McDermott really likes Pitts, and the Bills need to get better on special teams on the whole. I'd expect this relationship to forge on into the spring and summer months as Pitts attempts to make the roster once again.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com