For the second straight season, we’re asking who will be the nickel corner?
The Bills No. 1 cornerback position is slotted for Tre’Davious White while the No. 2 position is still up in the air. There appears to be a clear answer for the nickel position, but there are a few players competing for the role.
Taron Johnson was the unquestioned nickel corner during his rookie season after he beat out veteran Phillip Gaines for the role last year. Despite playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder for most of the season, the fourth-round pick out of Weber State proved to be a versatile defensive back both in coverage and run support.
Johnson had 41 tackles, three passes defensed and an interception in his first season with the Bills.
Through the course of the spring, he saw the most reps with the starting unit in the slot, and now fully healthy it appears it’s his job to lose.
Another 2018 draft pick of the Bills figures to be in the mix for the starting spot. A 2018 fifth-round pick, Siran Neal is making the switch from safety over to the nickel after having a mostly undefined positional role his first season.
"I'm seeing a lot of things that I've seen before. I just feel more comfortable," said Neal.
Neal has spent time at safety, linebacker and cornerback in college but returning to the nickel position feels like “home.”
"This is a year to come out and show coaches that they can depend on me – come out and do everything the right way," he said.
The second-year defensive back offers more size at the position than Johnson and in limited duty on defense as a rookie demonstrated good timing as a blitzer.
The last name to keep an eye on will be EJ Gaines, who returns to the Bills after a season in Cleveland.
Gaines won a starting job in 2017 on the boundary with the Bills, but will have a greater challenge this year whether it’s at the nickel or the right cornerback slot.
Gaines played in just six games with the Browns last season after injuries cut it short. He suffered two concussions in one month, forcing Cleveland to shut him down for the season.
“I spent this whole offseason focusing on my injuries,” Gaines said. “I think that's what the Bills felt comfortable about, too, is just seeing how I came in and worked different this time, really just focused on my body. I know I need to stay healthy for a full season.”
Gaines saw the least amount of time in the slot in the spring of these three candidates, and the coaching staff may already be thinking about leaving him on the outside at corner.
Nevertheless all three players are excited for the challenge of competing with one another this summer and know that competition will only bring out the best in them.
“Being a sixth-round pick coming out, I've always had to work for my spot on the team and on the field,” Gaines said. “That excites me more than anything. Man, I love competition. I feel like it makes the whole secondary grow. I feel like that's how I've made my whole career, honestly.”
The only other consideration at the position is veteran safety Rafael Bush, who manned the role in a pinch when the team was shorthanded due to injury. Whether he factors in as a consideration remains to be seen. Either way, nickel corner figures to be one of the more intriguing battles of training camp, especially if Neal proves to be a quick learner.
Click through to see the best black and white photos from the team's offseason practices.