There is turnover every year in the NFL. On average, it ranges from 25 to 30 percent roster turnover from one season to the next. Rosters with new head coaches typically have a bit higher turnover, but under first-year head coach Sean McDermott, the Bills completely revamped their secondary for the 2017 season.
Though the additional turnover may not have been a surprise, the on-field chemistry that developed in Buffalo's defensive backfield and produced for the Bills this season has been a revelation.
E.J. Gaines, Micah Hyde, Leonard Johnson, Jordan Poyer and Tre'Davious White were tasked with fitting together in the span of one offseason and executing their new head coach's defensive scheme, delivering consistency and production.
Outside expectations were low. Poyer was an unknown from the Browns. Hyde had been unable to earn a full-time starting role in Green Bay. Johnson was a role player in Carolina. Gaines had just arrived via trade and White was a first-round talent, but a rookie.
The men in Buffalo's defensive backfield took the noticeable doubt from NFL prognosticators to heart.
There was a great deal of risk involved knowing every player was new to every other one they would be playing with in the secondary, but the five men who have played most of the snaps have made it work unexpectedly well.
"They've done a good job," McDermott said. "A group of guys that really hadn't spent a lot of time around one another previous to joining the Bills. I think the coaches have done a nice job also with Leslie Frazier, Gil Byrd, Bobby Babich as well as Jimmy Salgado. The fact remains that we're still a work in progress and still room for improvement."
Buffalo's secondary leads the league with fewest passing touchdowns allowed (11). They're second in fewest pass plays of 25 yards or more allowed (17), third in passer rating allowed (77.0), fourth in interceptions (16). All while seeing the fifth-most pass attempts in the league (501).
So how did it all come together so quickly for the men on the back end of Buffalo's defense?
"We had five guys that were new and it just shows the character and drive those guys have in that room. The commitment to each other. There are no egos in there," said Jordan Poyer. "Even during the three-game losing streak there was no one pointing fingers. There are guys who come into work day in and day out who are very smart, talented football players. You put all that together and good things happen."
* *Back in March after Hyde and Poyer were signed early in free agency. Given the opportunity to be full-time starters for the first time in their careers in Buffalo, the two made a point of getting on the same page right away. They weren't going to swing and miss.
"With Jordan, we came in together and we said, 'This is our opportunity, let's just go out and do it,'" Hyde recalled. "We've both been to other places before and I don't want to say we were overlooked, but we didn't get the same opportunities we got here in Buffalo. We were able to come together as one between me and Jordan. Then from there, we got the other guys on board and they've been playing lights out."
Leonard Johnson was the only player coming in the door, who was well versed in coach McDermott's scheme, having played in it the previous season in Carolina. He signed with Buffalo shortly after Hyde and Poyer. He was probably the only one who could foresee a promising secondary.
"I knew they had signed Poyer and Micah on the back end. I didn't really know what was going to happen. I didn't know who Buffalo had. I texted coach and said, 'I'm ready.' When I came I saw all the pieces being put together. I knew having been in the defense last year with those two guys playing safety that the defense was going to be nice."
Tre'Davious White soon followed in the draft and through OTAs he was being schooled up by the more experienced players in the secondary. They knew there was a strong likelihood that he would have to fill a starting role.
"Those guys they've been doing a great job of just picking me up and bringing me along," said White. "Micah and Jordan and E.J. when he got here. Shareece (Wright) was a big help in OTAs. We just have a great group of guys who are not selfish at all and want to do well as a group."
Gaines was the last addition to the group via a trade with Philadelphia a month before the season opener.
All of them knew the challenge in front of them. They had to jell quickly on the field, so they made sure to build relationships off the field. Position group cookouts, lengthy film sessions together and hanging out with each other's families built camaraderie amongst the group heading into the season.
"We're a real brotherhood," said Johnson. "I've done more with these guys in one year than I've done on other teams being there longer. Everything we do is together."
But the one element that had every single newcomer completely committed was the man-to-man accountability.
"Practice, walk through, if you're not studying film, it's pretty rough," Johnson said. "So everybody holds everybody accountable. That's the way it needs to be in order to get everybody to jell and play well. We stress that. Don't be that guy. That's our slogan."
"For myself I never wanted to be behind no matter how late I came in," said Gaines, who was traded to Buffalo on Aug. 11th. "I didn't want to fall behind the other guys. I didn't want that excuse, but that's how everybody felt. They didn't want to be that guy who wasn't accountable. So I think everybody holding each other accountable for making the plays and knowing where they're supposed to be is crucial."
By Week 8, the Buffalo secondary had played a major role in the Bills 5-2 record, putting up a league-leading 17 takeaways including 11 interceptions.
"We all had high expectations for ourselves and for this team," said Poyer. "We understood we were a new group and we'd have to pick each other up real fast. Once we got the ball rolling and understood each other a lot more we started playing together. We started playing as a team and as a unit and it carries over when you know a guy personally off the field.
"When you're tired in the fourth quarter and you're looking at your buddy and you're like, 'Hey man let's do this.' That happens a lot and I'll look at Tre' or Tre' will look at me, or Gaines will look at me and we're all holding each other accountable. 'Hey man let's go and get off the field.' It just shows the type of guys we have in that room."
Facing the New England Patriots number one passing offense in Week 13, Buffalo was the first team to hold them to fewer than 13 points in the first half allowing just three field goals. Though the Bills did not get the victory in that first meeting this season, they did earn some respect from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
"Buffalo's defensive scheme is very well coordinated. They're very well coached," Belichick said. "They give you a lot of different looks and they do a great job of disguising those looks so they all kind of look the same. So you don't know what it is until after the snap a lot of times.
"The safeties in particular, Hyde and Poyer, do a very good job of disguising, so sometimes you don't have a clear read on the coverage until a second or a second and a half into the play. You don't see that a lot."
In the game, Tom Brady did not throw a touchdown pass, just the sixth time in the last four years that has happened. He was held to 258 yards passing and threw an interception late to Tre'Davious White.
"Poyer and Hyde do an excellent job of working together and what it looks like is usually not what it ends up being," said Belichick. "That's a hard thing offensively to deal with. They do it every week, every series against every team. It's impressive how disciplined and how coordinated and how poised they are to hold some of those disguises even though they're technically out of position. But they're able to get in position right at the last second before the offense can really do anything about it. They do a real good job."
"Playing alongside someone like Jordan Poyer, we've both gotten better because of each other," said Hyde. "Just talking, communicating, watching film together. Being on the field through the losses and the wins. He's a big reason why I'm able to call myself a Pro Bowl safety. I wish he was a part of that also."
In terms of passing yardage allowed, the Bills will finish the season in the middle of the pack and there are some other numbers that won't wow most outside observers. But if you've had the opportunity to watch this defensive backfield develop on a weekly basis it's hard not to think they'll be one of the better groups come 2018.
"If we continue to work and grind," said Poyer pausing. "Good things are going to happen for us."
"Hopefully we can get on that 'Legion of Boom' level. (Richard) Sherman, (Kam) Chancellor and (Earl) Thomas," said White. "That's probably one of the best groups in league history to ever do it. Those guys were great at what they do and within the scheme they all fit together and communicate well and hold each other accountable. We're trying to get to that level they're at."
"I think the sky is the limit for this team and this defense and this secondary especially," said Gaines. "Just growing as a unit, if we all stick together after this season, there's no telling, but if we do there's no telling what this secondary can do for this football team."