BBD Staff Writer: Ryan Talbot
There is a cautious optimism about Buffalo’s defense this year. Fans are looking forward to a more aggressive defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine after witnessing last year’s vanilla defense under Dave Wannstedt. But for Buffalo’s defense to be successful, the defensive backs need to hold their own against their opposition.
During his time in New York, Mike Pettine had cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to depend on and decent safeties last season in LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. The only proven player in Buffalo’s secondary is Jairus Byrd, and he is yet to sign his franchise tender.
Can Buffalo’s secondary do enough to allow Pettine to blitz as much as he would like? Here are Buffalo’s current options in the secondary and what you can expect from them in 2013.
Gilmore isn’t proven, but he is Buffalo’s best option at cornerback. While Gilmore had his rookie moments, he played strong football in year one.
Part of Gilmore’s biggest problem was with his aggressiveness. In 2012, Gilmore had 13 penalties called against him per Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium statistics). To take the next step, Gilmore will have to find a way to play with an edge without being called for penalties.
If Buffalo’s front seven can apply pressure to the quarterback, Gilmore’s interception total should make a jump in 2013, after he had only one in 2012.
When the Bills re-signed McKelvin this offseason, they paid him starting cornerback money with a four-year, $17 million contract. McKelvin is an absolutely dynamic return man, but he still hasn’t put together a consistent year at cornerback. While McKelvin can keep up with wide receivers, his ball location skills have been lacking.
Last season, McKelvin only played 354 snaps at cornerback according to PFF. With the Bills having moved Aaron Williams to free safety, McKelvin’s workload should increase significantly in 2013. If he struggles, the Bills don’t have a proven entity waiting in the wings. Buffalo needs McKelvin to play consistently at cornerback for their defense to find success.
Brooks could be first in line at nickel cornerback. He played in nine games as a rookie in 2012, starting two of them.
Brooks, much like Gilmore, played too aggressively in his rookie season. In his first career start in Week 13 versus the Jaguars, Brooks had three penalties called against him. Brooks played on the outside in this game, but the slot is his more natural position. The talent is certainly there for Brooks to succeed.
WGR’s Joe Buscaglia named Butler as a sleeper for the No. 2 cornerback position, and said Butler played well in OTAs. He has seen most of his time on the outside in spring workouts, and will be given looks there at training camp as well. Butler is certainly someone to keep an eye on at training camp.
That said, Butler getting the nod over McKelvin at the start of the season is unlikely. However, if McKelvin struggles or is not healthy, Butler could be the first cornerback to get a crack at starting on the outside opposite Gilmore.
Rogers’ play regressed significantly in 2012 after a strong rookie season. Per PFF, Rogers was thrown against 62 times last season and gave up 41 receptions.
Perhaps the new coaching regime will bring out the talent that Rogers flashed in 2011. Rogers could compete with Ron Brooks for the top job at nickel cornerback if he has a strong camp. If he struggles in training camp, Rogers’ roster spot could be in danger.
Robey, an undrafted free agent from USC, received some snaps at slot corner with the first-team unit during OTAs according to Mark Armstrong of BuffaloBills.com. While he is undersized at 5’7″, Robey is a terrific athlete with strong ball skills. Despite his size, Robey was an aggressive corner at USC and has the skills to make it in the NFL.
Robey has a good chance of making Buffalo’s 53-man roster. To receive playing time, he’ll need a few players in front of him to struggle.
Ellis is another nickel cornerback candidate. He is somewhat unknown as he joined the Bills in January, but he played at all three cornerback positions as well as both safety positions. His versatility could help him earn a roster spot.
Heath has played in Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Buffalo in his short NFL career. Last season, the Bills called Heath up from their practice squad due to injuries to Aaron Williams and Leodis McKelvin. Heath’s limited experience is still more than some of his competition for a roster spot.
Rolle signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent this offseason. He had 16 career interceptions at Catawba College, a Division II program. His former Catawba head coach, Chip Hester, thinks Rolle can make it in the NFL.
“Cornerbacks are the toughest thing to find,” Hester told the Salisbury Post. “Jumal is that prototype guy, and that’s why half the teams in the NFL came here to see him. Line up a whole bunch of guys, and you’d pick him out as the one who’s an NFL cornerback.”
On a team that is weak at cornerback, Rolle has an outside chance of making the team as the sixth cornerback.
Edwards, an undrafted rookie out of Missouri, is a big and physical cornerback. The biggest question mark with Edwards is his speed. If he proves that he can keep up with faster wide receivers, he has an outside chance of making the roster. More realistically, Edwards could land on the practice squad.
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Tags: Aaron Williams, Buffalo Bills, Crezdon Butler, Da'Norris Searcy, Defensive Backs, Duke Williams, Jairus Byrd, Justin Rogers, Leodis McKelvin, Nickell Robey, Positional Preview, Ron Brooks, Stephon Gilmore