BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills' defense has been here before.
Turnover in the secondary because of injury was a recurring problem last year -- four different outside corners started five or more games. Tre'Davious White, the team’s No. 1 corner, missed nearly a full season after tearing his left ACL in 2021 before returning toward the end of last season. His return provided some consistency at the position, and their 2022 first-round pick, Kaiir Elam, finished the season starting opposite White.
The Bills enjoyed stability at the position for this season's first month -- White and 2022 sixth-round pick Christian Benford started all four games. But the Bills have lost White -- who is ranked seventh in completion percentage (53.6%) since joining the league in 2017, per NFL Next Gen Stats -- to his second season-ending noncontact injury in the last three seasons. White suffered a torn right Achilles in the team’s 48-20 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
The Bills' pass defense ranks No. 4 in the league (allowing 169.5 yards per game) and the defense leads the league in takeaways (11), but now there's instability at cornerback. Where do the Bills go from here?
"It's a long year, so we always talk about needing more than just 53,” coach Sean McDermott said. "And when your number is called, you need to be both physically and mentally ready to go.”
Who's next at outside corner without White?
The top candidates to start without White are Benford and 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson with Elam next in line to compete based on the start to the season.
Benford also suffered an injury Sunday, coming out in the second quarter and having his shoulder X-rayed. McDermott described him Monday as day-to-day. Him being healthy would be key, as he has a strong start to the season in which he can build on.
The second-year player has yet to allow a touchdown this season. His numbers aren’t as impressive as White’s -- White allowed a 53.3% completion percentage on 15 targets and just 3.2 yards per attempt versus Benford's 64.3% completion percentage on 14 targets and 10.4 yards per attempt.
“Christian has done a great job of stepping in and embracing the role of being a starter,” assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington said. “He gave us a big-time pickup in terms of his ability to chase and pursue the football."
Jackson came in for Benford after he was injured Sunday and allowed five catches on five targets for 45 yards as the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He did break up a 2-point conversion attempt and had a big hit on wide receiver Braxton Berrios as soon as the Dolphins receiver caught a 3-yard pass.
“No matter [if] he's a [No.] 1 or 2, 3, Dane is a No. 1 in everybody eye,” defensive back and special teams player Siran Neal said. “Dane's that man, he's a dog and everybody know it and every time he comes in the game, he makes an impact. So, that's something that we're not surprised by, but every time he makes another play, I just look at him and be like, 'Look, let's do it again.'"
Jackson started 14 games in 2022. He led the team last season in the most passes defensed as the nearest defender (12) and allowed just 1.6 yards after catch per reception as the nearest defender, lowest among the team’s cornerbacks who saw significant playing time. Jackson allowed a 62% completion percentage as the nearest defender (team average was 66.2%), three touchdowns and had two interceptions.
The other contender at the position is Elam, who has been a healthy scratch for the first four games despite the Bills trading up to acquire him in the first round of last year’s draft. Elam was outplayed by Benford and Jackson in training camp and the preseason. But he has a new opportunity with White's injury.
“I think when there's good competition it makes it hard, right? There's no free passes here,” McDermott said. “You got to know how to do things no matter where you're picked or what you're paid -- you've got to earn your spot. And just because [Elam] hasn't been active doesn't mean that we're not confident in Kaiir. We are extremely confident in Kaiir. To this point just a few players have outperformed him. So now is his chance.”
Nickel corner Taron Johnson was helped off the field late in Sunday's game, but he said he was fine afterward, which McDermott echoed Monday.
When asked if the Bills might look around the league for help after White's injury, McDermott said, “We're always going to look, having said that, we remain confident in the guys that we have in our building.”
What’s the latest at safety?
There are more unanswered questions in the Bills secondary, especially surrounding the health of starter Jordan Poyer, who missed every practice leading up to the Dolphins game with a knee injury he suffered in the Week 3 win over the Washington Commanders. Free agent addition Taylor Rapp started in his place against Miami. McDermott said they are going to continue to take it “one day at a time” with Poyer.
Safety Damar Hamlin had a spot on the active roster against Miami after being a healthy scratch the first three games. He participated on special teams, playing 18 snaps.
“I'm so proud of [Hamlin],” starting safety Micah Hyde said. "I said it way back when, just to see what he went through and being there for each and every step to see D-Ham come back, put the pads on. ... He's my brother right here. I love him to death.”