Linebacker, cor­ner­back could be lesser tar­gets

The Buffalo News - - NFL - This is the last in a series on the Buf­falo Bills’ key needs en­ter­ing NFL free agency. This in­stall­ment looks at lower-pri­or­ity po­si­tions on the Bills’ list: Linebacker, cor­ner­back and run­ning back. By Vic Carucci

Once you get past the Bills’ ob­vi­ous tar­get po­si­tions in free agency, a few spots are worth bol­ster­ing.

One is out­side linebacker, es­pe­cially with Lorenzo Alexan­der play­ing what likely will be his fi­nal sea­son in the NFL.

An ob­vi­ous can­di­date is Anthony Barr of the Min­nesota Vik­ings. While his early ten­ure might be spent an­swer­ing ques­tions about when Bills quar­ter­back Josh Allen hur­dled him to pick up a first down last Septem­ber, Barr could be a good fit in Buf­falo.

He has shown ef­fec­tive­ness in rush­ing the quar­ter­back, an area in which Alexan­der has ex­celled in his time with the Bills, and in pass cov­er­age.

Since join­ing the Vik­ings as the ninth over­all pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, Barr, who turns 27 on March 18, has es­tab­lished him­self as one of the bet­ter out­side lineback­ers in the league. In 2018, he was se­lected to his fourth con­sec­u­tive Pro Bowl af­ter mak­ing 55 to­tal tack­les, in­clud­ing eight tack­les for loss, with three sacks. He also had a forced fum­ble and a pair of pass de­fenses.

In five sea­sons, Barr has made 71 starts, has 338 tack­les, 13.5 sacks, and 22 passes de­fensed. He has also forced seven fum­bles, with four re­cov­er­ies (in­clud­ing one he re­turned for a touch­down), and an in­ter­cep­tion.

An­other spot that might be on the Bills’ free-agent radar is cor­ner­back. The team has strug­gled to find a re­li­able starter op­po­site Tre’Davi­ous White, an ex­er­cise that reached a low point when 2018 free-agent ac­qui­si­tion Von­tae Davis re­tired at half­time of a Week 2 loss against the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers.

Rookie Levi Wallace, signed as an un­drafted free agent from Alabama, held that start­ing job for the fi­nal seven games, and fig­ures to have a good chance of keep­ing it. Af­ter Wallace’s first NFL start, Nov. 11 against the New York Jets, coach Sean McDer­mott praised his per­for­mance, not­ing that he didn’t think “the mo­ment was too big” for the rookie.

Wallace had im­pressed coaches with his work dur­ing the pre­sea­son and in reg­u­lar-sea­son prac­tices, and steadily gained enough of their trust to crack the start­ing lineup. “I think some of it had to do with the strug­gles that we were hav­ing at the po­si­tion it­self as you’re try­ing to find some­one to give you some sta­bil­ity at the po­si­tion,” McDer­mott said.

Fel­low rookie Taron John­son was im­pres­sive as a slot cor­ner be­fore suf­fer­ing a shoul­der in­jury that landed him on in­jured re­serve at the end of the sea­son.

Given the Bills’ em­pha­sis on zone cov­er­age, there isn’t an over­whelm­ing need for a lock-down cor­ner, which means the Bills could get by with some­one who is more solid than great. Be­sides, the free agency mar­ket doesn’t of­fer a whole lot in the way of cor­ner­back tal­ent. That might have been the rea­son the Bills had Kevin John­son, a cor­ner­back re­leased by the Hous­ton Tex­ans Tuesday, in for a visit Wednesday.

Ar­guably the most in­trigu­ing can­di­date hit­ting the open mar­ket is Ja­son Ver­rett of the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers. In­juries have lim­ited him to only 25 games in four sea­sons, with a mere five com­bined in 2016 and 2017. A torn Achilles caused him to miss all of last sea­son. But given the mod­est salary he would likely re­ceive, some team could get a de­cent bar­gain should the 27-year-old Ver­rett re­turn to the form he showed in 2015 when, a year af­ter join­ing the Charg­ers as a first-round pick from TCU, he had three in­ter­cep­tions in 14 games.

Although LeSean McCoy will be 31 be­fore the start of the sea­son and the Bills’ ground game was aw­ful, it’s hard to make a case for run­ning back to rank any­where but near the bot­tom of their free-agent wish list.

For one thing, they in­sist they’ll stick with McCoy as their starter. For an­other, they like the depth Chris Ivory and Mar­cus Mur­phy pro­vide.

Re­cent his­tory sug­gests the Bills would prob­a­bly find their best run­ning-back value on the third day of the draft, or in the un­drafted freeagent mar­ket.

“We’ll see what hap­pens, but that’s an­other po­si­tion that maybe there’s com­pe­ti­tion out there in free agency or the draft,” McDer­mott told re­porters at the NFL Scout­ing Com­bine. “But if not, we feel that those top two guys are guys that have started and played. Chris has started and been a thou­sand-yard rusher be­fore and I thought when Shady missed a few games, I thought Chris came in and did a nice job.

“They’re two dif­fer­ent style run­ners. LeSean’s more east-west and he’s go­ing straight, hun­dred miles an hour, whether he runs into you or you get out of the way. Again, we’re try­ing to add com­pe­ti­tion ev­ery­where. We’re not shy­ing away from run­ning back ei­ther, if the right op­por­tu­nity’s there.”

Getty Im­ages

Min­nesota’s Anthony Barr, shown sack­ing Mi­ami’s Ryan Tan­nehill, could be an op­tion for the Bills should they look to add at in­side linebacker. Barr had 55 tack­les and three sacks last sea­son.

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