Buffalo Bills Recap Safeties Is Christian Benford Changing Positions

Buffalo Bills Recap, Safeties: Is Christian Benford Changing Positions?

For five straight years, the security position has been a source of strength for the Bills. Incredibly talented and healthy, the duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer helped guide the Bills to several years of defensive dominance.

But 2022 brought uncertainty. Hyde suffered an injury at the end of the season in September and the year has been marked by both Poyer’s contract situation and an eerie string of injuries. Additionally, the Bills’ depth chart was exposed as the season progressed, leading to difficult decisions in the offseason.

Using season grades from The Athletic film review, we’ve outlined individual grades and analysis for each player of 2022, along with recommendations for how the Bills should conduct their off-season businesses.

Collateral 2022 in retrospect

Potential cap savings are approximate and minus $800,000 for the contract that would replace him in the top 51. All contract information is from Over The Cap.

Poyer shrugged off a training camp injury and started the 2022 season as an incredible advantage on defense, contributing to the lead with four turnovers in his first three games. His performance in two interceptions against the Ravens was a major factor in the Bills’ comeback win. And even when it didn’t generate revenue, it still remained a key part of ground and air teams’ limitations. But then the injuries piled up.

After missing just two games in his first five years, Poyer missed five in 2022. He suffered a total of six injuries — two elbow injuries (one in the summer and another mid-year), a foot injury, a rib injury, a knee injury, and a concussion that ended his division playoff game early. He was well below his standard in the playoffs, registering grades of C-plus against the Dolphins and C-minus against the Bengals. The performances probably had something to do with the cumulative impact of the injuries, but the injuries and the performance were a worrying sign over the long term. Regardless, Poyer remains a plus starter for 2023 and will move to free agency.

Contract status 2023: Unrestricted Free Agent

After Hyde suffered his season-ending injury, Jaquan Johnson was to be the player to take the starting line-up. But in Week 3 against the Dolphins, when Poyer was also injured, he struggled considerably and some of his weaknesses contributed to a loss. Johnson was replaced in the line-up by Damar Hamlin after Poyer’s return, only to be given two more chances after two more Poyer injuries in Week 5 and Week 9. Johnson looked better against the Steelers but struggled again against the Jets and that was the end of his extended playing time on defense. The next week without Poyer, the Bills replaced Johnson in the lineup with converted cornerback Cam Lewis against the Vikings. Johnson remained a critical special teams player throughout the year and one of the best in the capacity.

Contract status 2023: Unrestricted Free Agent

* Out of deference to Damar Hamlin’s situation, his performance analysis is not included. Hamlin is under contract through the 2024 season.

Players with less than 200 snaps

The Bills brought Dean Marlowe back to the close for a minimal price but surprisingly held him behind Johnson and Lewis. Even more confusing, Marlowe was a healthy scratch in four straight games from Week 13 through Week 16. He finally got his chance in Week 18 and the playoffs after Hamlin’s unfortunate incident. Marlowe made some mistakes that helped give the Bengals an early lead and left the game with an injury.

Contract status 2023: Unrestricted Free Agent

After the Johnson experiment failed on the starting lineup, the Bills tried Lewis against the Vikings, and it went as well as one would expect for an undersized cornerback making his first start safely. Lewis remained a central figure on special teams and kept him active, but he wasn’t their best in those units. A return to cornerback could be on the cards.

Contract status 2023: Limited Free Agent

It’s odd to put Hyde in the “less than 200 snaps” group, but that was a big part of the Bills’ safety storyline last year. In his two games, Hyde continued the same high standard of play the Bills have become accustomed to, helping the Bills to two runaway victories. His loss was felt at deep middle and running support every week as the Bills struggled with the tackle in the secondary for most of the season. Hyde is now fully healthy and motivated for next season and will likely look to make up for lost time in 2023.

Contract status 2023: Cap reached $10.57 million, signed through 2023
2023 Dead Cap at release: $7.04 million ($2.73 million in cap savings)

Jared Mayden spent two weeks on the Bills’ practice team before being released after Week 8, then returned to the team after the Bengals’ Week 17 game on the 53-man roster. Mayden has been a healthy scratch in all three games and will likely be one of the roster bubble players this summer.

Contract status 2023: $940,000 cap hit signed through 2025
2023 Dead Cap at release: $0 ($140,000 in cap savings)

Recommendations for the 2023 off-season in safety

1. Closely monitor Jordan Poyer’s free hand

After speaking with The Athletic’s Tim Graham at the Pro Bowl, Poyer appears determined to break into the free-agent market in mid-March. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of his story in Buffalo. Bill’s general manager Brandon Beane left the door open for Poyer’s return, likely knowing it was going to be a waiting game. The Bills likely won’t give Poyer a contract near the top of the safety market given his age (32 in April) and injury concerns, but they will likely put in a semi-competitive grassroots bid to bring him back to Buffalo. If Poyer’s market doesn’t perform as he hopes and the offers he’s receiving are more in line with what the Bills can offer, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return on a one- or two-year deal. But the Bills shouldn’t make an emotional decision, and they should only bring him back if the money is right for where Poyer is in his career. This remains a “to be continued” situation.

2. Bring Christian Benford to safety from cornerback

That idea could have worked better for converted cornerback Cam Lewis, but Benford and Lewis are two very different players. Lewis was a nickel corner in a smaller body switched to safety out of team necessity. Benford would be a logical step for a player who has internalized his zone principles well as a border cornerback and has shown a workable level of instincts in that other role. The Bills were pretty happy with Benford last year and could try to find a way to bring him onto the field. On safety he would have a shot at a starting position in either 2023 or 2024, along with superb height (6ft 1,205lbs) and athleticism while learning from one of the best in Hyde. There is untapped potential here with Benford. Both Hyde and Poyer began their careers as cornerbacks before moving to safety and thriving. Benford could be next to coach the Bills.

3. Design a security within the first four rounds

Even if the Bills were to re-sign Poyer on a one-year deal and bring Benford to safety, the team should invest in another young safety at some point in the first four rounds of this year. Much like Benford, the drafted security would have an opportunity to partner with Hyde and learn from one of the best free security in franchise history. And if Poyer came back, that would be twice the chance. Regardless, the Bills need a post-Hyde and Poyer life plan that could fully begin after the 2023 season. Safety is also a position where teams don’t have to force a first-round pick to get a legitimate starting option. Using a previous pick to build depth and potentially earn a starting option as soon as 2023 would be a significant addition to their roster.

4th signing of Jaquan Johnson

Given how poorly he played in the starting XI, this might come as a somewhat surprising recommendation. But Johnson wouldn’t be put back on the starting lineup, he would return as a fourth or fifth emergency security while also playing a crucial role on special teams. The Bills could potentially lose some of their key special team players this offseason, but Johnson would be an inexpensive means of getting one back. You can probably bring him back with a cheap one-year deal.

5. Do not offer Cam Lewis a restricted offer

That’s not to say the Bills should abolish Lewis altogether, but his level of play wasn’t worth the $2.6 million one-season right of refusal. The Bills should instead decline that option, make Lewis an unrestricted free agent, and then see if they can bring him back on a veteran-minimum contract to compete again for a roster spot, but this time as a cornerback.

Depth map after planned off-season

Free securityStrong security

Micah Hyde

Round 1-4 draft pick

Christian Benford

Jaquan Johnson

Naughty newbie

Jared Mayden

(Photo by Christian Benford: Mark Konezny / USA Today)