BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The Buffalo Bills’ secondary was much discussed heading into the 2013 Draft. Last season, the Bills allowed 25 touchdowns through the air, seven plays of 40 or more yards, and failing to find a consistent No. 2 cornerback to play opposite rookie Stephon Gilmore, general manager Buddy Nix and Co. were expected to spend a decent chunk of the offseason trying to turn youth and potential into results.
However, as the draft came and went, many of the areas that were expected to be addressed went untouched.
Now that the new players are in the fold, it’s time to take a look at how the 2013 offseason will affect the look of the secondary in the new season.
Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Justin Rogers, Duke Williams, Crezdon Butler, Kip Edwards, Nickell Robey, Jumal Rolle, Dominique Ellis, T.J. Heath, Vernon Kearney
Looking at the list of names competing for spots, the only sure thing that jumps out is that Stephon Gilmore will again be the Bills’ No. 1 corner. After a solid rookie season that saw Gilmore learn how to become more physical without attracting yellow flags, many in the Bills’ organization feel confident about his future as an elite corner. Some improvement in securing interceptions is really the only area Gilmore needs to refine in order to enter the upper echelon of cornerbacks in the NFL.
However, everything aside from his spot is more than a little uncertain. Leodis McKelvin was re-signed and paid starting money, so he will certainly have the first crack at starting opposite Gilmore. But despite his dynamic abilities as a returner and unquestioned athleticism, McKelvin has never proven to be a solid starting corner. He seems to have trouble tracking the ball in the air and, while frequently in position to make plays, never appears able to actually finish those plays: a trait that’s obviously troubling if he wants to secure a starting spot.
Even more troubling for the Bills is that nobody else on the roster seems to possess superior abilities. Justin Rogers was a diamond in the rough during his rookie season as a slot corner in 2011, but was frequently burned last year and seemed to regress in all phases. Similarly, Ron Brooks was viewed as a steal when the Bills were able to select him in Round 4 of the 2012 draft, but an early foot injury stopped a lot of his offseason progress and left him struggling to catch up for most of the latter half of the season. While both corners possess good speed and have flashed coverage skills, there has yet to be enough consistency to bring about much faith that they can do anything other than man the slot.
That brings us to the most intriguing name on the list: Duke Williams. A fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, Williams had some character red flags that dropped him from a likely Day 2 selection. He’s a compact, physical player with the speed and change-of-pace ability to play corner, despite having more experience at safety. In fact, Nix stated that they see Williams playing slot and possibly even outside corner.
This seems to suggest that Williams will play a role similar to what the Bills thought Bryan Scott could do last year: lining up in various spots depending on the match-up. The decision to move Aaron Williams to safety and also draft Jonathan Meeks implies that the Bills view Duke Williams as more of a corner than a pure safety. In a league of multi-faceted offenses, it’s a role that should be of unique importance.
The rest of the cast of characters leaves much to be desired. Robey has some solid cover skills, but at 5’8″ he’s never going to be an outside corner. Crezdon Butler had all kinds of upside coming out of college but has yet to latch on anywhere in the NFL, while Kearney (6’2″), Edwards (6′), and Rolle (6′) are clearly players the Bills are taking a chance on because of their impressive size for the position.
With none of the latter group likely to make a real impact, the Bills’ secondary will hinge on the ability of McKelvin, Rogers or Brooks to step up and assert a claim for the No. 2 job. If one of them proves capable, then the Bills’ defense could be in for a solid season. However, with the amount of blitzes defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is expected to bring, the secondary could be exploited if none of them prove worthy of a starting job.
Jairus Byrd, DaNorris Searcy, Aaron Williams, Jonathan Meeks, Mana Silva
The safety position for the Bills comes down to only one player: Jairus Byrd. When the Bills franchised Byrd at the end of the season, almost everybody expected a deal to get done. Byrd became an All-Pro in Buffalo, and seemed to want to remain in town. The Bills were no longer seen as frugal, after shelling out an exorbitant amount of money to bring Mario Williams into the fold.
However, a deal is still not done and rumblings are starting that the two sides are far off in talks — according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, negotiations between Byrd and the Bills were “nowhere” as of last week. While it’s too early to panic, the cloud of uncertainty will continue to hold steady over the position until Byrd re-signs, or is allowed to walk and the skies open up and pelt the franchise with angry and bitter tirades.
The most pressing question is who starts opposite Byrd. The Bills let George Wilson go, which opened up a spot for Da’Norris Searcy, a tough, physical player who had made a real impact in run support during his first two seasons. He has improved a bit in his coverage, but is still more suited to playing in the box and coming up to make plays on ballcarriers.
It’s a strength that is similar to the one possessed by rookie fifth-round pick Jonathan Meeks. The Clemson product is a strong tackler who loves to come up and de-cleat. However, Meeks also has proven his ability to make plays in the air as well, securing seven interceptions and 13 pass breakups in his 24 starts at Clemson.
The biggest question mark, however, might be Aaron Williams. The Bills’ second-round pick in 2010, many college football analysts thought that he was better suited for the safety position. The team kept him at corner where he was decent in his first season, despite battling injury. Then last year came, and Aaron Williams had nowhere to hide. He was abused regularly by opposing offenses, and began to lose playing time as the season went on. With decent ball skills, but slightly limited speed and change-of-pace athleticism, Aaron Williams might be able to find a home over the top of a defense.
Similar to the cornerback position, there’s a far amount of uncertainty with the safeties; however, the talent level seems to be high with this group. Searcy has proven to be serviceable and both Meeks and Aaron Williams offer intriguing upside and ability. The trick for the Bills is just going to be finding the right mix.
With a fast, aggressive defense, you can’t afford to have any weak spots in the secondary. The Bills should spend the offseason trying to make sure they identify them and find a way to patch them up.