BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Buffalo Bills had a rough weekend. They lost to the Washington Redskins by a score of 30-7 in their third preseason game Saturday. The result of that game ultimately does not matter, but the disappointing play on both sides of the ball for the Bills was concerning. More concerning going forward, however, are the injuries that the Bills suffered Saturday.
The concussion suffered by Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb is troubling, as it leaves the Bills with their top two quarterbacks injured and potentially in a position to start undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel as their starter on Week 1 of the regular season. An injury on the other side of the ball, however, could present even more trouble for the Bills. The Bills confirmed Monday that the team’s clear-cut No. 1 cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, is out 6-8 weeks with a fractured wrist.
Of all the players the Bills could not afford to lose for an extended period of time, Gilmore was near the top of the list. There were already concerns about whether Leodis McKelvin is good enough to handle the No. 2 cornerback job, let alone the No. 1 cornerback role that he will now assume in Gilmore’s absence. Behind McKelvin, the Bills have no established cornerbacks who have proven themselves of taking on a starting role.
A second-year cornerback, Gilmore appeared poised to breakout as a top NFL cornerback this season. He performed well in the Bills’ first two preseason games. BBD staff writers Glenn Gifford and Ryan Talbot, who both attended a number of training camp practices, said Gilmore was consistently impressive when they were in attendance.
With Gilmore atop the depth chart, the expectation was for Gilmore to consistently match up with the opponent’s best wide receiver. He has displayed all the skills necessary to be a shutdown No. 1 cornerback: he has good size (6′, 190 pounds), plays with speed and quick feet, is physical with opposing receivers and has good ball skills. The Bills could count on Gilmore to be the “island” they needed to lock down one sideline.
Without Gilmore on the field, expect the passing game to open up significantly for opposing offenses. McKelvin is not a shutdown cornerback, but he becomes the team’s clear-cut No. 1 cornerback while Gilmore is sidelined.
The best choice to play opposite McKelvin would appear to be Crezdon Butler. Butler is a journeyman cornerback who has already played for four NFL teams in three seasons, but he has been the most impressive cornerback outside of Gilmore this preseason. The Bills could also move Ron Brooks outside from his nickel cornerback position, and ascend Butler, Nickell Robey or Justin Rogers to the lead slot cornerback role.
Between those five players, at least two or three of them need to step up their game. The Bills were already having trouble this preseason with blown assignments in the secondary leading to big pass completions, including five of more than 20 yards from the Redskins. With Gilmore out of the picture for the early weeks of the season and only inconsistent cornerbacks remaining on the depth chart, the Bills are likely to have some significant issues right away in pass defense.
Taking Gilmore out of the lineup puts pressure not only on the other cornerbacks to step up, but on the rest of the defense as well. The Bills’ defensive line and linebackers must able to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks to help the cornerbacks out. Meanwhile, it is very important for the safeties, especially projected starters Jairus Byrd and Aaron Williams, to demonstrate consistent coverage range and help the cornerbacks make plays and take away receiving options on the back end.
As far as the regular-season roster will look when cutdowns take place this week, it would seem that McKelvin, Brooks, Butler, Robey and Rogers all have secure roster spots in the wake of Gilmore’s injury.
Bills head coach Doug Marrone said the team will not designate Gilmore as an early-return injured reserve player, adding that the team expects to be back within the first eight weeks of the season, according to the team’s official Twitter account. That will likely stop the team from keeping a seventh cornerback (that would most likely be T.J. Heath if they did), but do not be surprised if the Bills make an attempt to improve at the position by claiming a cornerback who gets waived by another team.
Given the projected timetable for Gilmore’s injury, his return is most likely to happen between the Bills’ sixth and eighth game. The Bills will certainly be hopeful to have him back in time for Week 6, where they will desperately need to have him in their effort to hold Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green in check..
Nonetheless, Gilmore’s loss should prove to be a significant one in the team’s first five to eight games. Two games where losing Gilmore could be especially problematic will come in their Week 1 matchup versus the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, and in Week 4 versus the Baltimore Ravens and the dangerous passing combination of quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith.