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Buffalo Bills new secondary leaves us back pedaling in time

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Sal Maiorana and Leo Roth talk about the Bills strengths and weaknesses heading into this weeks game again the Atlanta Falcons
Sal Maiorana, Leo Roth, Virginia Butler, Jamie Germano

We’re told all the time how important defensive backs are in today’s (and yesterday’s) NFL. How you can’t win without them in a league gone pass crazy.

 On Draft Day, though, we groan inside when one is selected, especially in the first round. “Sexy’’ is never a term applied to a defensive back. “Necessary’’ is, as if we were talking about plumbing.

  When an elite defensive back leaves in free agency, we follow the team lead and shrug, “Well, he’s not worth that much.’’

 And when one of those elite cover men joins your team, everyone winces. Like in New England, which added Buffalo’s Stephon Gilmore last off-season to the tune of five years, $65 million with $40 million of it guaranteed.

 Defensive backs: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, pass the beer nuts.

 I thought a lot about DBs this week because at this early juncture of the season, it is the surprising play of their all-new secondary that is largely behind the Bills’ 2-1 record and the fact Tre White, E.J. Gaines, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will remain in the spotlight this Sunday.

 Buffalo travels to unbeaten Atlanta (3-0) where MVP quarterback Matt Ryan, star receiver Julio Jones and a bird’s nest of other stars await.

 After Gilmore jumped to the Patriots for a king’s ransom and all the lobster he could eat and after Ronald Darby was traded to Philadelphia, Buffalo’s ability to stop the pass looked as strong as the ability of chewing gum to fix a leaking pipe.

 How does a team recover from losing both starting corners?

 But here we are: The Bills rank ninth in the NFL against the pass, first in scoring defense, and have yet to allow a touchdown through the air.

 White, the team’s first-round pick out of LSU, and young veteran E.J. Gaines, picked up in the Sammy Watkins’ deal with the Rams along with free agent safeties Hyde and Poyer, have played like four pit bulls protecting a raw steak.

White and Poyer, in particular, have come up with a few end-zone heroics to directly keep points off the board. Each player in the secondary has an interception and each has contributed heavily in the team’s seventh-ranked run stopping with White, Gaines and Poyer ranking among the Bills’ Top 5 in tackles.

Combined, the Fantastic Four has 58 tackles, two sacks, four picks and 19 passes broken up. That’s better production than an iPhone factory.

 And to think, the combined average 2017 salary of White, Gaines, Hyde and Poyer ($12.455 million) is less than what Gilmore ($13 million) is averaging this season with New England.

 White, who showed his mettle against the Broncos, looks like a star in the making. Targeted early and often by Denver, he didn’t flinch and made several big plays in the fourth quarter that preserved a 26-16 win.

“Like I said before, you’re going to have your ups and downs but it’s all about how you respond,” White said. “At defensive back, you have to have a short-term memory.’’

 It’s the play of the secondary that has my memory back pedaling.

 Since the 1967 AFL/NFL merger, Buffalo has drafted more defensive backs in the first round than any other position, 13. Running back is second with nine.

 Ten of those 13 first-rounders have come in the NFL’s passing era. At one point in the 1990s, the Bills selected a DB first in four out of five years.

 Yes, they play in a division that has over time featured Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady as opposing quarterbacks. But the Bills, as fiscal policy, have also allowed top pass defenders they drafted and developed to walk as free agents.

Good for the players, who become insanely rich. Not always good for the team that has to keep replenishing the shelves.

 Before Gilmore hit the jackpot there were Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements and Donte Whitner. In addition to being first-round picks from Ohio State, this threesome shared this in common: they had a lot of football left in them. To be exact, it came to a combined 20 seasons, 40 interceptions and six Pro Bowls.

  They cost their new teams a combined $37 million in guaranteed salary, of course. But it’s these kinds of decisions and the constant churn they create that keeps a team out of the playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons.

 Of course, not all departures are met with a sigh.

 Safety Jairus Byrd, one of the Bills’ great second-round finds who had 22 interceptions in five seasons, signed a $56-million deal with New Orleans. After three forgettable seasons, he was waived.

 Still, each departure begets an arrival.

Here are some of the great secondaries in Bills history (listed by corners then safeties):

 >Booker Edgerson, Butch Byrd, Ray Abruzzese/Haygood Clarke, George Saimes. The backline of the 1964-65 AFL champions. Saimes, Edgerson are Wall of Famers and Byrd holds team record with 40 interceptions.

 >Mario Clark, Charles Romes, Bill Simpson, Steve Freeman. NFL’s No. 1 defense in 1980 and among two best in Bills history with ’99 squad.

 >Kirby Jackson/J.D. Williams, Nate Odomes, John Hagy/Mark Kelso, Leonard Smith/Henry Jones. The core back end of Buffalo’s four consecutive Super Bowl teams 1990-93.

 >Ken Irvin/Antoine Winfield, Thomas Smith, Kurt Schulz, Henry Jones. NFL’s No. 1 defense in 1999, No. 1 vs. the pass and set team record for fewest yards and points allowed. The Music City Miracle was its last hurrah.

 >Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, Izell Reese/Pierson Prioleau, Lawyer Milloy. Core secondary of No. 2-ranked defenses in 2003 and 2004. Two No. 1 picks and four-time Pro Bowler Milloy. Not bad.

 >Stephone Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Da’Norris Searcy, Aaron Williams. Most recent best Bills defense in 2014, ranked No. 3 vs. pass and No. 4 overall.

 With their hot start, White, Gaines, Poyer and Hyde have an opportunity to join the conversation. And if White’s the player he seems, will he stay or go under this regime when his option year arrives in 2021 and free agency in 2022?

 Defensive backs … can’t live with them, or without them, pass the beer nuts.

 

 

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