Where does Youboty fit in, if at all? (Photo Source)
Last year, cornerback was an area of weakness for the Buffalo Bills. Injuries to veteran Jason Webster and Ashton Youboty forced Jabari Greer into the starting lineup, and while he performed generally very well, depth was so thin that the Bills often played safeties (such as Donte Whitner, Jim Leonhard and Bryan Scott) on slot receivers.
Clearly, depth is no longer of concern at the position. The team's two starters - Greer and Terrence McGee - return. Youboty is back. The team added veteran Will James via free agency, who brings some much needed experience and size to the group. And, of course, the team added three corners through the draft; two (top pick Leodis McKelvin, fourth-rounder Reggie Corner) are expected to stick.
With six players that could see playing time at the position, one does wonder: exactly what will Buffalo's depth chart look like on opening day 2008? It's anybody's guess - but it's also the off-season, so let the guessing games begin:
McGee Starts; Who Joins Him?
It's fairly clear at this point that McGee, as the team's most tenured corner - both in terms of roster stay as well as starting experience - will start. Who joins him? As it appears right now, Greer - a former undrafted free agent who only last year saw significant time at corner - has that role; he's expected to receive a big training camp push, however, from the rookie McKelvin.
The most logical guess at this point is that due to his experience, Greer will begin the 2008 season as a starter. As the team's top draft pick, however, McKelvin will be force-fed onto the field in some fashion, whether it's as a return man or in the defensive backfield. If McKelvin accrues enough playing time early on, he'll very likely be starting by season's end. Don't be shocked, however, if he straight up steals the job from Greer prior to the start of the regular season.
Four-Way Competition at Nickel
Curiously, McKelvin could land anywhere from starting cornerback to #4 corner prior to the start of the season. As it stands now, it's the veteran James - who has eight years of experience as a member of the Giants and Eagles - leading the race for the nickel corner job. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either - James' size would be an asset against some of the league's best slot receivers, in particular New England's tiny Wes Welker.
The loser of the Greer/McKelvin battle at starting corner, however, will provide the chief competition for James, who also must beat out Youboty and the rookie Corner for the job. Corner can be mentally eliminated right now; as a fourth-round pick, he certainly won't have to play early - and he probably won't. He is expected to take over the nickel duties at some point in the foreseeable future, however. If McKelvin doesn't start, you bet that he'll at least steal some reps from James at nickel - if he doesn't outright beat him for that job as well.
McKelvin's pre-season progress is the wild card. If he proves he deserves to be on the field (and chances are high that he will), he will probably play some nickel, and perhaps even get some of Greer's reps on the outside as well. Where McKelvin lands will effectively place Greer and James on the depth chart; their '08 playing time depends as much on McKelvin as it does on their own play.
The Youboty Factor
Other than McKelvin, the other wild card in the Bills' corner scenarios is Youboty. The third-year cornerback, once hyped as the eventual replacement to Nate Clements, has struggled with injuries and inconsistency through his first two NFL seasons. Much of that has been outside of his control, but the fact remains that while he's still got potential, he hasn't delivered on it in two seasons to this point.
Youboty has been mentioned in trade rumors throughout the spring, primarily in regards to the Cleveland Browns, and he'll remain one of the better young options available via trade throughout the summer. If Corner - or even another rookie, Kennard Cox - proves that he can at least stick on the roster, or better yet play in a pinch, Youboty could be expendable. I'm not saying I'd push for a trade - I'm of the mind that you can never have enough talent at cornerback - but if a trade offer comes along that the Bills can't pass up, they just might pull the plug. If Youboty stays, he could wind up anywhere from fourth on the depth chart to outright released.
One thing is certain - despite all of the question marks surrounding the pecking order, the Bills are in a far better situation at this position than they were a year ago. Depth is a good thing, even when you have good players sitting on the bench. There are quite literally two huge battles about to take place at this position (starting corner, nickel corner), so get ready for some excellent battles come July 25.