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Starting cornerback, more depth would be icing for Buffalo Bills' secondary

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For the past four seasons, the strength of the Buffalo Bills' defense has been its secondary; the core of safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, and cornerback Tre'Davious White has produced the NFL's second best pass defense since 2017 in terms of yards allowed per game (209.4).

If there's any question as to whether the Bills recognize their strong point, just look at the extensions they have doled out over the past two offseasons.

Poyer signed a two-year, $19.5 million extension last year, keeping him with the team through at least the 2022 season. The Bills then dished out their most important contract to date under GM Brandon Beane, making White the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history at the time with a four-year, $70 million extension in September.

Finally, Buffalo locked in Hyde with a two-year, $19.25 million extension last week, cementing its trio in the defensive backfield.

The secondary should require a minimal amount of attention from Beane this offseason, but that's not to say there isn't work to be done. According to Roster Management System, the Bills are about $11.5 million under the $182.5 million cap after releasing wide receiver John Brown on Wednesday. And just like every offseason since drafting White in 2017, the starting cornerback opposite him is still in question.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Bills will seek a starter in NFL free agency. Even after Buffalo signed Josh Norman to a one-year deal last March, Levi Wallace started 12 games in 2020. He's been the Bills' primary starter opposite White for the past three seasons and is a restricted free agent this offseason. That makes him likely to return, but he won't be handed the starting job.

"We always talk to Levi, that people are going to look at him as the undrafted free agent," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said.

"That really emboldens Levi to work hard and have a desire to show everybody, 'Maybe I wasn't drafted, but I'm as good as anyone you're going to bring in, or better.' He practices that way, he plays that way and he understands he can never relax."

As of now it looks like Wallace will have to fight off 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson for the starting job in 2021. The Pittsburgh product played sparingly as a rookie but made plays when given the opportunity, including a fumble recovery, an interception and five passes defensed in 193 defensive snaps.

Despite the limited reps, Beane said Jackson made an impression on the Bills' decision-makers.

"Dane came in and played well for us," Beane said. "To be able to take a practice-squadder up [to the active roster] ... [we] even had him as an emergency guy in the playoffs a couple of times. He really showed it wasn't too big for him.

"He'll have every opportunity next year to not only win a spot, but we'll see who starts opposite Tre."

Nickelback Taron Johnson is entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2021 and proved he's worthy of an extension with his play in the latter half of the 2020 season. His 101-yard pick-six against Lamar Jackson in the Bills' 17-3 playoff win against the Baltimore Ravens is one of the most memorable plays in franchise history.

Johnson's extension is unlikely to come this season considering the Bills' tight salary-cap situation and other, more pressing needs, but he'll have a chance to solidify his role.

Beyond the starters, Buffalo has an intriguing depth piece in third-year safety Jaquan Johnson, as well as cornerback Siran Neal -- both of whom make their biggest impact on special teams. Dean Marlowe is an unrestricted free agent who has spent his entire career under Bills coach Sean McDermott, first with the Carolina Panthers and now in Buffalo. It would be somewhat surprising to see him elsewhere in 2021.

It's also possible Buffalo takes a cornerback early in the 2021 NFL draft -- especially if it doesn't re-sign Norman; there's a need for depth at the outside positions with only White, Wallace and Jackson under contract at those spots. If one of the draft's top options is still around when the Bills select at No. 30 in the first round -- players such as South Carolina's Jaycee Horn or Alabama's Patrick Surtain II -- don't be surprised if Beane looks to add a potentially elite option to an already-thriving unit.