(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 remained a strength with their starting duo that they hope to continue for a third straight season -- safety:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
2018 Season GPA: 2.94 (Snap Count: 1,010)
2019 Contract Status: $3.825 million cap hit, signed through 2020 season
Age: 27 (4/25/1991)
- For the second straight season, the Buffalo Bills saw Jordan Poyer continue to be one of the more underrated safeties in the league. While Poyer may not have the speed or size that teams covet in safeties, his all-around ability more than makes up for it. Poyer reads the quarterback and the field quite well, often showing his knowledge of the opposing offense by using keys at the beginning of plays to trigger his memory and to get to where the play is going well ahead of time. He also showed to be a sound tackler for the second year in a row, though the Bills had to rely on him less because of the improvement from the front seven in 2018. And to top it all off, Poyer added four more interceptions on this his career tally -- which gives him nine in his two seasons in Buffalo, and 11 for his career. From the bye week to the end of the season, Poyer was without question one of the best players on the field for the Bills, registering a 3.19 GPA as the team's primary playmaking safety.
2018 Season GPA: 2.92 (Snap Count: 881)
2019 Contract Status: ~$6.6 million cap hit, signed through 2021 season
Age: 28 (12/31/1990)
- Like Poyer, Micah Hyde saw his GPA take a bit of a hit in 2018 from where it was in 2017 -- but that doesn't mean he was a weakness for the Bills this season. It was quite the contrary, and while he didn't take over as many games as in 2017, it was his consistency that helped the team as a calming force throughout 2018. For the season Hyde didn't see a single game's grade dip below a B-minus, nor did it go above a B-plus, which showed that Hyde was always where he needed to be and that the coaches can depend on him without having to worry about him as a liability in any situation. With Poyer signed through 2020 and Hyde signed through the next three seasons, the Bills have a long-term solution with their top two safeties both in the prime of their careers.
2018 Season GPA: 2.59 (Snap Count: 452)
2019 Contract Status: $1.8 million cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 31 (5/12/1987)
- With a clear hole on the roster in having a third safety, the Bills knew that they couldn't push their luck for two straight seasons and hope that both Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde would stay healthy throughout the season. Not to mention, if they ever wanted to play the 'big nickel' defense that Sean McDermott liked to do in Carolina, they didn't have a player to fill that role. That's where Rafael Bush came into the equation and helped the Bills in a few different areas. When Micah Hyde had to miss time in Green Bay, Bush filled in and helped keep the Packers offense in check. Bush also filled in for nickel cornerback Taron Johnson when the rookie had to miss time with the shoulder injury he sustained early in the season, and even though it wasn't his best spot, he still made some plays and flashed as a blitzer. On top of it all, Bush was a mainstay on special teams, having taken nearly 35-percent of those snaps in games that he was active. The Bills would likely rather have Bush shift into a special teams role above all else in 2019 but if the Bills don't find a suitable backup nickel corner, or a safety or linebacker to play the big nickel role, they could do far worse than Rafael Bush.
Players with under 200 snaps
2018 Season GPA: 2.33 (Snap Count: 54)
2019 Contract Status: $645,000 cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 26 (7/25/1992)
- A favorite of Sean McDermott's from his time in Carolina, the Bills held on to Dean Marlowe for a second straight year and even activated him for a spot start in Week Five against Tennessee when both Micah Hyde and Rafael Bush were injured. That wound up being the only action on defense that Marlowe had in 2018 as the Bills returned him to the practice squad. To keep him under control for the 2019 offseason, the Bills elevated him off the practice squad for the final three weeks of the season. If there are no additions made at safety, Marlowe will be up against Siran Neal to be the fourth safety on the roster in 2019 after outplaying him in the 2018 preseason.
2018 Season GPA: 2.71(Snap Count: 16)
2019 Contract Status: $641,504 cap hit, signed through 2021 season
Age: 24 (8/4/1994)
- Even though the fifth-round draft pick and rookie Siran Neal made the roster outright in 2018, he was the fifth-best safety in the building behind Dean Marlowe on the practice squad. The trouble for the Bills is that they want to see if Neal's incredible athleticism will translate into a multi-faceted defensive piece down the line, and they didn't want to subject him to waivers. It was telling, though, that when the Bills were without both Hyde and Bush that they turned to Marlowe ahead of Neal to start. Neal justified his spot on the roster by being one of the core special teams players, having taken 53.99-percent of all snaps in 2018.
Recommendations for 2019
1) Determine where they are with Siran Neal
- Of all the offseason goals for the front office and coaching staff at safety, figuring out what they have in Siran Neal, without question, is the most important. Neal has the physical tools and potential versatility that the Bills love in their defenders, but that's where it ended for the former fifth-round pick. During training camp and the preseason, Neal looked a bit lost in the complexities of the defense and positional coaches were continuously working with him as the summer went on. As I mentioned before, the Bills didn't want to subject Neal to the starting lineup in Week Five, so they elevated Dean Marlowe from the practice squad for a one-week spot start while two of their top three were out with an injury. So when the players report back for Organized Team Activities, that's when the education of Neal needs to continue, along with an assessment of his progress in the offseason in knowing the defensive scheme. For the Bills to justify keeping Neal on the 53-man roster for a second straight season, they'll need to see somewhat of a jump from the oncoming second-year player. Special teams will undoubtedly play a role, too, but the Bills are hoping that they can cash in their draft lottery ticket on Neal to one day fill the Rafael Bush role as the third safety behind Hyde and Poyer.
2) Sign a lower-tier free agent
- Because the Bills have a well-established top three in their safety room in Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Rafael Bush, the Bills will look to try and create competition for the spring and summer heading into 2019. By adding a lower-tier free agent, likely well after the start of free agency in early March, the Bills would give themselves one additional piece to battle both Siran Neal and Dean Marlowe for the fourth safety job on the roster for 2019 and another player that could help special teams improve. I wouldn't expect anyone flashy in this role, but rather a player with some experience that will have an uphill climb to make the roster.
3) Sign two undrafted free agents
- While it would be nice if one of these two undrafted rookies would charge up the roster to try and crack the 53-man, the more realistic scenario is that one of them shows enough potential in the preseason to warrant keeping on the practice squad to develop through 2019. Two undrafted rookies combined with the five safeties already on the roster and the lower-tier free agent, it would give the Bills eight total on the team. The Bills kept seven heading into training camp last year, but with back-to-back seasons for Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer having nearly 1,000 snaps on defense, it would be within the team's interest to reduce some of the starting duo's reps during the summer for preservation. At the very least, signing one undrafted rookie safety to develop should be a priority in that period of the offseason.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com