With the LB class being so eloquently analyzed by jri111, I think I'm going to pass on providing any kind of analysis on them. His post was too good and right on the mark that anything I post will pale in comparison. As for what we currently have at LB, I think we all understand that Crowell and Ellison are pretty much the only guys on the team who deserve any significant playing time on defense. The need for LB's is huge, we all know that.
Anyways, on to the DB situation.
Once again, the Bills had one of the top pass D's in the league finishing 7th in the NFL at 188.7 yards per game allowed. Part of that can be attributed to our horrendous run D and part can be attributed to good play out of our secondary, though I don't think it was anything above "good" as a whole. Sure, the yards allowed were up there with the best in the league, but the Bills had just 13 INT's, a far cry from the 24 accumulated in 2004, but more on par with the 10 in 2003 and 17 in 2005. Excluding that turnover crazy 2005 season and it appears the secondary continued its struggle to generate turnovers. That is a problem that needs a quick reversal this season.
All-Pro (at least in his mind) Nate Clements has signed the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history leaving the Bills after six solid seasons as a starting CB. The Bills will sorely miss his agressive presence on defense, especially against the run. Despite an awful overall rush D, Clements was again stellar against the run last season. He struggled early on in the new cover 2 schemes, but as the season progressed and he was allowed to play up on the line more, his numbers improved and our pass D looked like it began to gel. Again, his loss will be felt in a big way as the Bills will attempt to infuse some youth into the position.
Terrence McGee had what can best be described as a "tale of two seasons". His first half of the season was about as poor as I've seen any Bills CB not named Chris Watson play. After the bye and with more man/bump and run coverage implemented, he settled in nicely and had a productive, yet unspectacular second half of the season. He had some struggles then, but really stepped his play up. Like Clements, McGee is pretty effective in run support and has proven to be a sure tackler at the CB position. Possibly the most alarming stat from his 2006 season was zero, as in zero interceptions. After going from two to three to four INT's in his first three seasons, it looked like Terrence had finally grasped what it takes to be a playmaking CB in the NFL. However, he really showed no inclination to produce the turnovers we needed. I won't say this is a huge red flag, yet, but we need him to become the playmaker this secondary requires and the fans crave.
Ashton Youboty fell behind after the sudden death of his mother during preseason camp. He never really got into the thick of things last season and ended up playing in just three games accruing three assisted tackles against the Jets. He will be counted on in a big way this year as he's currently projected to start opposite McGee. Time for the youngster to grow up.
Kiwaukee Thomas was a "who dat?" pick in free agency last year signing a one year deal after a season in Miami and five in Jacksonville. He took the third CB job early in the season and allowed McGee to slide inside in passing situations. His play overall was solid and somewhat unexpected. He was a calming force showing good veteran leadership and was strong in run support. There is one stat about Thomas that is just mind boggling and against it's a zero. This time it means zero INT's in his entire career, which to this point is 101 games. For a DB, that may be some sort of record for games played without an INT. I wish I knew how to search for such a stat. He will be counted on to provide the veteran presence a young secondary will need on 3rd downs. Hopefully, he'll find the ball in his hands a few times this season.
Jabari Greer lost his nickel job early in the year to Thomas, but provided decent play when called upon. His biggest contributions were on special teams when he teamed with Andre Davis to form one of the best gunners duos in the league. He'll be expected to continue excelling in that role this season and may find some extra time on the field defensively if the Bills can't find an impact corner early in the Draft.
At safety, Troy Vincent hurt his hamstring early on in the opening game against New England and was not to be heard from in a Bills uniform again. The team caught some flack (what else is new) for his release after week 6, but in retrospect it wasn't a huge loss.
Our first round pick in 2006 at #8, Donte Whitner was considered a major reach. The so-called experts ripped on the Bills early and often for that pick claiming that they could have had him at #15 after a trade down with Denver. Well, considering none of those fools had any idea if a team between 8 and 15 would have taken Whitner, we'll leave it at the Bills got their guy. As for his rookie season, it was good, but rather ordinary in my opinion. He came in against New England and never left the lineup except to miss the Jets game because of a hamstring injury. He finished the season with over 100 tackles and showed an impressive ability to help in run support. As the season progressed, he began making his presence felt up at the line more and more often showing his high game IQ. The one problem I had with Whitner (and Ko Simpson) is the fact that he was NOT a playmaker last year. After intercepting Tom Brady and heading for a should-have-been-a-TD touchdown called back by a questionable block in the back, it looked like he was the missing piece at safety. However, he did not generate another turnover the rest of the season, forcing no fumbles either. In order for this young defense to take a step forward, it is imperative that Whitner becomes the ball hawk safety that the #8 pick in the draft should be. I am worried that what we saw from Whitner last year is close to what he'll always give us, solid production, but little big play impact. Most rookies who develop into stars flash that big play potential at some point during their rookie seasons, but Whitner never really showed us he is capable of such. His play and leadership will be one of the top variables for this season's defensive success. He needs to add turnovers to his resume at some point.
Ko Simpson replaced Vincent early in the New England game and was also entrenched in the lineup for the rest of the season. Many Bills fans are extremely high on Ko, but his troubles are similar to Whitner's for me. He also did not look like much of a playmaker, though had two INT's earlier in the season. As a free safety who never got beat deep, it would seem that his numbers should have been a little better. There were also times that Simpson showed poor technique in open field tackling, taking bad angles at running backs. He looked completely lost when LDT juked him out of his boxers in the San Diego game, but Tomlinson will do that to anybody. The fact that it happened at other points in the season is what leaves me in limbo regarding Simpson. Will he improve his tackling and become a playmaker in the secondary? I do not know that, but he has the skills and potential to do so.
With all that, Whitner and Simpson were both inserted into the lineup early and force fed the NFL before they probably should have been. Neither looked overmatched and both played well over the course of the season. In order for them to take the next step as players and become one of the better safety duos in the NFL, they need to wreaking havoc in the defensive secondary. There is nothing a young offense needs more than turnovers from its defense. Donte and Ko should have plenty of opportunities to make plays this season as we'll likely have a starting CB duo of McGee and Youboty, which teams will look to pick on. Our young safeties need to not only help our corners, but patrol the middle of the field as they did last year.
With McGee, Youboty, Thomas and Greer at CB, the Bills don't necessarily have a true #1 corner, but do have enough parts to work with. Playing the Cover-2 can mask some of the deficiencies of the cornerbacks, which should help Youboty step into the lineup without struggling too much. There is a need to add another promising CB via the draft, preferrably on the first day.
Another guy to watch for is Eric Bassey. He spent 2006 on the practice squad, but has excellent speed and good size. If he can put that together he may be able to make the roster and provide extra depth to the position. I feel he may be able to best help our special teams as his skills lead me to believe he could be a good fit for the open gunner position.
Heading into Draft weekend, there is no indication if or when the Bills will address CB depth. The numerous mock drafts circulating through the web have given us CB's at #12, multiple CB selections in some mocks, but most often a CB in round 2 or 3. I believe we will not add a CB in the 1st round, but will definately make a selection at some point on the first day. There are a number of good looking CB prospects in this draft.
Daymeion Hughes from Cal is probably the guy I like most heading into Saturday. Despite running his 40 in the 4.6-4.7 range at the combine he shows good game speed (Note: he ran a 4.56 at his Pro Day, likely giving his stock the boost it needed). Very rarely in his college career did he get beat anywhere on the field. With 15 career INT's, including four for touchdowns, he showed his impressive playmaking ability at the highest level. His game seems most suited to a zone defense, which would make him a solid pick for us. Taking him at #43 may be a little earlier than some project, so if he's available at #74, the Bills have to pull the trigger. He's too good of a football player to pass up at that point.
Other potential 2nd round picks include Marcus McCauley of Fresno St, Josh Wilson of Maryland, Eric Wright of UNLV, Tanard Jackson of Syracuse and Johnathan Wade of Tennessee. I'm not as high on any of them as I am on Hughes, but I do like McCauley, Wilson and Wright as future starters, though McCauley will likely be taken early in the 2nd. Neither has great size, but both are blazing fast and have the talent to become lockdown corners. Wilson is also a top notch return man upping his value. Drafting a player like that would enable the coaches to allow our #1 CB McGee to focus solely on defense, though I would see that as a mistake.
Potential 3rd rounders to look at include Hughes, Wade, Fred Bennett of South Carolina, or David Irons of Auburn. Again, I love Hughes and hope he would be available to us here. Bennett would not be a bad pick for us as he has great size and sufficient speed. I do not like Irons in any capacity. Tarrell Brown from Texas would also be a pretty good choice at the end of the 3rd or early in the 4th.
Later round selections are a crapshoot at the CB position. Nobody really knows how the smaller school players will be able to handle NFL WR's. Did anybody see 7th round pick, Courtland Finnegane from little Samford becoming an impact player in his rookie season? Despite that, I will keep my eye on a bunch of CB's I've read good things about. Travarous Bain from Hampton has great speed and is getting a lot of attention as a sleeper CB. He could go on the first day, but I would not expect the Bills to go after a developmental player like that so early. If we do wait until the 2nd day to make a selection at CB, I like Corey Graham from New Hampshire, an excellent return man with good size and ability, Usama Young from Kent State, a player with good measurables and a big upside, and a bigger school player, DeAndre Jackson from Iowa State, who is projected as a cover 2 corner with the potential to become a solid starter.
The Safety position is not as big of a need, but depth is necessary. I cannot see the Bills taking a safety until the second day. However, if the Bills did trade down and acquired more picks, a guy like Josh Gattis from Wake Forest or John Wendling from Wyoming would be nice late 3rd round options.
A later second day pick is more likely. In the 6th or 7th round, I would look for guys such as Gerald Alexander of Boise St, Darren Stone from Maine, Kevin Payne from Louisiana-Monroe, Dashon Goldson from Washington, and Patrick Ghee from Wake Forest. Each of those guys has the physical skills necessary to become a starter at the position, but will need some time to learn. Each would provide valuable special teams play right away and could provide emergency help at safety. I like any of those guys in the 6th/7th rounds Sunday.
What the Bills will do
In the end, I still believe the Bills will draft a CB on the first day. Where that is, I really have no idea. In my opinion, there will not be a corner selected in round 1 (part of the reason why I excluded those players above), but after that i could see a CB going in the 2nd or 3rd. I do believe the Bills will fill their LB and RB needs in the first two rounds leaving the 3rd round as the earliest position for a CB pick. My personal preference, as mentioned, is Daymeion Hughes at #74. If he is available at that point, I do not see how the Bills could pass on him. If not, I could very easily see Fred Bennett as the pick, or Tarrell Brown later in the 3rd. After that, I like Young the best in the 4th round.
At safety, a 2nd day pick only should be used. I am leaning towards Alexander and Stone in the 6th round. Each looks like a great value pick at that point in the draft.
It should be an interesting Draft weekend for the secondary.