BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Seconds before Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Thursday's 31-6 win over the New Orleans Saints, he was being praised as one of the top defensive backs in the NFL.
“There’s a reason he’s one of the elite corners in this league,” NBC analyst and former Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “He’s got great makeup speed, ball awareness.”
Shortly after, White's left knee bent the wrong way while he was covering Saints receiver Marquez Callaway. Brees' comments now serve as a reminder of what the Bills will be without after an MRI revealed the team’s top corner would be out until 2022.
Sitting at 7-4 with six games left to play, including two against the New England Patriots (7-4), the Bills took a hit to their Super Bowl hopes after losing a shutdown corner like White. It doesn’t help that the Bills' cornerback room lacks depth.
What are the ramifications of the injury, and what’s next? Here are the biggest questions facing the Bills:
Who will step in for White?
It will likely be Dane Jackson, who played the remainder of the game in New Orleans after White left. The 2020 seventh-round pick out of Pitt has played in all 11 games this year, mostly on special teams.
"I thought he did a good job," coach Sean McDermott said of Jackson's play against New Orleans. "He's been in that position before in terms of having to come in, whether it's been for Tre or for Levi [Wallace], and he usually handles himself well just like he did tonight."
Jackson has 14 total defensive tackles and competed with Wallace for the job opposite White in training camp. He has allowed a completion on 70% of targets when he is the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats -- but he has been targeted only 10 times.
Jackson has been up-and-down when given opportunities, but he should be the first player to try to fill White’s shoes.
Can any combination of players really replace White?
In short, no. White allowed a 50.8% completion percentage and 58.9 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, both fourth best among defensive backs with 50-plus targets this season, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
He had not given up a passing touchdown this season and was the only player not to do so (among nearest defenders with at least 50 targets). Since entering the NFL in 2017, White has held opposing quarterbacks to a 64.2 passer rating as the nearest defender in coverage, third best in the NFL during that span (minimum 250 targets). That's nearly impossible to replace.
"Obviously Tre’Davious is a huge playmaker for us and just his presence on the football field is unmatched," safety Micah Hyde said.
White was often tasked with trailing the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. Going forward, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier might tailor his defense so that responsibility no longer goes to one player. Wallace has yet to show he can handle the opposing team’s top weapon for entire games.
What’s the impact on the rest of the secondary?
Safeties Jordan Poyer and Hyde have both been having strong seasons; Poyer has a team-high five interceptions and Hyde is second with three. Nickel corner Taron Johnson has also had a fine season after signing a three-year, $24 million extension in October.
Moving Johnson to help on the perimeter would leave the defense without as strong of an option at nickel. The cornerbacks will need the help of the safety duo more than ever before.
While White is irreplaceable, the Bills' defense has allowed the fewest passing touchdowns (eight), yards per pass (5.7) and lowest completion percentage (57.6%) in the NFL. That’s not just because of one player. If anyone can get creative with this defense, it’s Frazier, and players up front like defensive tackle Ed Oliver continuing to have big games will also be a significant part of the unit’s long-term success.
When can White return?
It will likely be between six and eight months. He could be set to go for the start of next season, if all goes well. White signed a four-year, $69 million extension in 2020.
Could the Bills look elsewhere for help?
Wallace and Jackson should be the starting outside corners, but help and depth could come from outside the building. As the season continues, more veteran players might come available from other teams, even with the trade deadline passed.
Potential options available now include Quinton Dunbar, who worked out for the team in September and hasn’t played in a regular-season game this season. Daryl Worley is also an available free agent, who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers when McDermott and Bills general manager Brandon Beane were with the team. He also had a brief stint on the Bills’ practice squad last year.
One player to watch on another team’s practice squad is Nickell Robey-Coleman, who is currently with Detroit. He spent the first four years of his career with the Bills, and has played both outside and inside.