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Had Tre'Davious White opted out due to COVID worries, he would not have looked back

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

For a couple days back in early August, as the deadline approached for NFL players to decide whether they were playing in 2020 or opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, Bills fans were holding their collective breath.

Star cornerback Tre’Davious White hinted that he was thinking long and hard about not playing in order to lessen the possibility that he would bring the virus into his home where it could impact his young family.

“No matter what, my family is gonna come first, no matter what’s going on,” White said then when he was asked about weighing that against the very real possibility that the Bills, preseason AFC East favorites, could be in for a special year. “No matter how big of a season, I’m always going to put my kids first.”

In the end, convinced that the organization was doing everything it could to protect its employees, White decided to play, leaving defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and cornerback E.J. Gaines as the lone Bills virus opt outs.

Wednesday, White was asked to reflect on the decision he made.

The Bills' Tre'Davious White breaks up a pass intended for the Ravens' Mark Andrews.

“I mean, at the time, like everybody else, we didn’t know how this thing was going to go, how this COVID thing was going to shake out,” White said. “Just me losing somebody in my family that’s close, obviously it gets you to thinking about things and gets you thinking about things more than football ... the bigger picture of life itself and your family and the people that you love. 

“That’s definitely something that played a part in it and that was the big reason why I was going through what I was going through as far as deciding what I was going to do. But ultimately just me getting here and being in the building and seeing the day-to-day protocols and how the Bills and everybody around this organization were taking it serious and taking all the precautions and using all the protocols to help everybody be safe. As I continue to go through it, I feel comfortable, and here I am.”

It was certainly an important day for the Bills when White confirmed that he would play given the huge role he commands in the Buffalo defense. Losing their lockdown cornerback would have been a tough blow and that was only illuminated by the season White had as he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition.

The 2017 first-round draft pick has been a pillar in this defense from the moment he arrived, and shortly after his decision to play the season, the Bills rewarded him for his on-field achievements with a rich four-year contract extension that potentially keeps him in Buffalo through 2025.

“Tre is honestly one of the, if not the best, corners in the game,” said quarterback Josh Allen, who has to go up against White in practice. “Just his smarts, the way he can flip his hips, he’s obviously not the biggest guy but the way he can jam our guys at the line and get out and still run with them, he’s impressive to watch.

“He’s one of those guys who wants this team to be the best it can be, he practices extremely hard and I know he got paid this offseason, but his work ethic hasn’t changed. He’s one of the best guys in the locker room and he goes out there and just competes and performs every week.”

According to Pro Football Focus, White ranked tied for fifth among boundary cornerbacks this season in coverage snaps per catch, allowing one reception every 15.1 snaps. In the 14 games he played (he missed one with an injury plus was rested for the season finale), he was in coverage on 512 plays and was targeted only 55 times, 12th fewest as opposing teams know better than to test him.

He was always an excellent cover corner, but where his game has advanced through the years is in his ability to come up and make tackles in the run game. In two playoff games, he already has 13 tackles.

Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White intercepts a pass intended for Chargers receiver Mike Williams.  The Bills beat the Chargers 27-17.

“Now the way he tackles, that’s what makes him a complete corner,” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “Because a lot of guys that are good cover guys, they take it with pride that they don’t tackle. That to me is not a well-rounded corner. And Tre’Davious has a lot of pride and he wants to be a well-rounded corner and not just be known as a cover guy. To see his growth and improvement over the years where he hasn’t been stagnant, where he’s worked as hard as he can to improve, it’s impressive. He’s a guy we know we can hang our hat on every single game, and you need that at that position. He’s been really special for us.”

Safety Jordan Poyer, who along with Micah Hyde came to the Bills the same year as White in 2017 and have teamed to give Buffalo one of the best secondaries in the league, said he would have understood White opting out, just as he understood the decisions made by Lotulelei and Gaines. That said, he’s very happy White has been along for this magical ride to the AFC Championship Game.

“I think every person’s decision was a personal decision,” said Poyer. “Whether he decided to play or stay, obviously, we’re happy that he decided to play. But you can’t really hold that against a player based off his personal beliefs or personal decisions, whether or not he wanted to play or not. We’re here now with the guys that decided they wanted to play. And we’re not really looking back.”

White was asked if, at any point this year, he reflected on his decision and came to realize how happy he is that he didn’t miss a season in which the Bills have won 15 of 18 games and are on the precipice of making it to the Super Bowl.

“If I was to choose to not play, I was going to be fine regardless,” he said. “I was going to cheer on my teammates regardless and cheer on the Buffalo Bills regardless. If I was to have went the other way, I feel like it was for my family which is more important than any game or anything. 

“In that aspect, I don’t feel like Star is missing out on anything. He chose his family over a game and the things that he had going on. Obviously Super Bowl chances or AFC championship chances don’t come around every day, but I mean it is what it is. You can’t make a wrong decision in this thing because you go the other way with your family, you miss out on things like this, but you’re a dad with your family and you know that you did the right thing to keep them safe.”

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.