Sal's AFC East position battles: Defensive backs

How do the Bills stack up against their division rivals?

Sal Capaccio
July 17, 2019 - 10:41 am

Photo: Mark Konezny - USA TODAY Sports


The last of my last AFC East position battles focuses on and examines the defensive backs for the four teams in the division.

Originally, I was going to separate safeties and cornerbacks into two different categories and articles. However, as you can see from the tweet and screenshots below, several of the players are simply listed as a “defensive back” on their team’s roster, as opposed to either “safety” or “cornerback.” In fact, the New England Patriots list only one actual safety and three corners, but 13 other players defined as defensive backs. Also, teams are now starting to use their defensive backs in a lot more of hybrid roles, playing safety, cornerback, and even linebacker depending on the opponent’s personnel and formation and what matchups they feel comfortable with.

See the tweet, feel free to leave your own comment and rankings, then look at mine:


1.) New England Patriots

Bill Belichick goes to great lengths to not give anything away about what his team is doing. A look at the Patriots' roster shows only one safety listed - Patrick Chung, and only three cornerbacks - Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, and rookie Joejuan Williams. The rest of the defensive backs are listed just as that - “defensive back.” 13 of them. Gilmore and McCourty are the two starting cornerbacks. Chung, along with Devin McCourty, are the starting safeties. J.C. Jackson was very good in limited snaps as an undrafted rookie last year. He might even push Jason McCourty for the starting job opposite Gilmore. Speedster Jonathan Jones is the slot cornerback. He had three interceptions last year playing a solid role every week. The team really likes second-year player Duke Dawson, who spent most of last season on injured reserve, but has the flexibility to be used in multiple ways. Seven-year veteran Duron Harmon is a bit of a forgotten man with all the other talent ahead of him, but has had four interceptions in each of the last two years in a rotational role. New England has very good starters and solid depth on the back-end of their defense.


2.) Buffalo Bills

You won’t find many teams with a more solid group of starting two safeties and a cornerback as the Buffalo Bills have with safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, along with cornerback Tre’Davious White. There were plenty of question marks, and even problems last year opposite White, but undrafted rookie Levi Wallace settled the spot down when he started the final seven games. Wallace goes into this training camp as the starter, but will be pushed by former first round pick Kevin Johnson, who has plenty of talent but wasn’t able to stay healthy in Houston. Taron Johnson won the slot cornerback job last year as a rookie, then just kept getting better every week. However, he also had injury issues, dealing with a bad shoulder until finally having season-ending surgery. He’ll be ready for camp, but E.J. Gaines returns to the team after spending 2018 in Cleveland and also lined up in the slot, after Johnson, during spring practices. Gaines can play both inside and outside, giving Sean McDermott the flexibility he loves in his players, but he’s also had injuries that have cost him 20 games over his last three seasons and a completely lost 2015 season. Behind Hyde and Poyer is Rafael Bush, who I named my “Best Free Agent Signing” by the team a year ago. He provided a valuable backup role throughout the season. Siran Neal is listed as a safety, but the team used him closer to the line of scrimmage during spring OTAs and he may be the “big nickel” player Sean McDermott has been looking for in Buffalo. Rookie Jaquan Johnson is probably only a special teams player this year, but has the skillset that can allow him to play as a situational safety when needed. The Bills have done a tremendous job of identifying and developing players in the secondary over the last few years. It’s a big strength of the team headed into 2019. If everyone stays healthy, they’re the best group in the division, but I’m ranking them No. 2 because of the injury concerns and questions to a few key players.


3.) Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins look solid up the middle at safety, but have questions at cornerback. However, they do have one bona fide top-tier cornerback they can rely on week-in and week-out in Xavien Howard. Howard led the league last year with seven interceptions, made the Pro Bowl, then signed a five-year, $75.25 million contract extension. New head coach Brian Flores has moved some parts around this offseason. Bobby McCain has played cornerback throughout his career, but looks like he’s moving to safety, while Minkah Fitzpatrick may play more cornerback, as opposed to safety, as he did his rookie year. What’s happening with Reshad Jones? He’s 31-years-old and has the highest cap number on the team by quite a bit, counting over $17 million against the salary cap this season. They’d like to move on from him, but would incur essentially all of that in dead money by releasing him, and it’s doubtful other teams want to trade for him given his age, salary, and injury history. Then there’s T.J. McDonald, who has a very similar skillset to Jones. He’s a safety, but might even play a hybrid-linebacker role this year, especially if Jones sticks around. Flores is really re-making the roster, including bringing cornerback Eric Rowe over from the Patriots, who should get the nod opposite Howard as cornerback No. 2. Cordrea Tankersley and Torry McTyer are probably next in line at the spot, with some rookies and second year players pushing for roster spots and playing time.


4.) New York Jets

If I had done two separate pieces focusing on safeties and cornerbacks individually, the New York Jets may have had the top safety group (it would have been very close with the Bills either way), but probably the bottom group of cornerbacks. That’s what they’ve built and who they are in the secondary. Excellent up-the-middle with two terrific young safeties in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, but a lot of question marks on the outside at cornerback. Trumaine Johnson didn’t have the year the team hoped for after signing him to big money last offseason, partly due to injuries that caused him to miss six games. However, he’s talented and still their top cornerback. Opposite him is most likely Darryl Roberts, who will have to take on a much bigger role this year. Brian Poole, signed as a free agent from the Atlanta Falcons, will replace Buster Skrine as the team’s slot corner. Even if those three players are solid enough as a group (which is not certain as it is), beyond them is a big issue. The depth is severely lacking. There will be a lot of hoping that someone can emerge and take a prominent, reliable role, especially since defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ scheme will often keep them exposed while he brings pressure up front.


More AFC East Position Battles:
Offensive Line 
Running Back
Wide Receiver
Tight End
Defensive Line

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