There's no doubt about it - emerging from tiny Troy college, Buffalo Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin is coming off of a solid rookie season. Drafted No. 11 overall in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, McKelvin - buried on the depth chart as the fourth corner at the beginning of last season - was pressed into early starting action thanks to long injuries to starter Jabari Greer and nickel back Ashton Youboty. Though making the jump from Troy to the NFL was expected to be a difficult one - and there's no doubt that McKelvin went through some serious growing pains - he acquitted himself rather well in six rookie starts.
Now, Greer is gone, departed via free agency, signing a four-year deal with New Orleans. Youboty is still working to conquer his injury issues, and free agent signee Drayton Florence bombed in a one-year starting stint with the Jaguars last season. The Bills have depth at cornerback, there's no doubt - getting a further boost from McKelvin's draft classmate, Reggie Corner - but there's also little doubt that McKelvin is being counted on to fully cement himself as a starter in 2009.
It's fairly easy to plug-and-chug McKelvin's name into the starting spot opposite Terrence McGee and feel relatively comfortable. But is it really a given that McKelvin has fully shaken off the incosistent play that made his rookie season merely passable? Let's not forget, folks, that Leodis made some huge mistakes to go along with the flashes of brilliance he displayed. It's far from a lock that McKelvin will be a consistent player entering his sophomore season - in short, there's a lot riding on the second-year player's shoulders.
One area that the Bills don't have to worry about with McKelvin at the helm is in the return game. Though he wasn't known for being an explosive kick returner in college (he returned seven punts for touchdowns in his four years at Troy), McKelvin established himself as one of the NFL's most dangerous kick returners in his rookie season. In averaging 28.2 yards per return, McKelvin ranked third in the league in that category among players with at least ten returns. He also had a return touchdown (in a Monday Night Football loss to Cleveland) and had another score called back on a bogus holding call (in a late-season road loss to the Jets).
Buffalo is quite wealthy in the return department; Roscoe Parrish, McGee, Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes are all quite capable of handling kick return duties as well. Clearly, none of those players are in the same class as McKelvin (though McGee was earlier in his career), so Leodis is going to get the bulk of the work here - as he should. Hopefully, it won't be harmful to his defensive duties. As he's just 23 years old, his legs should certainly be fresh enough to handle the responsibilities from a physical standpoint.
Defensively, for every two-interception game he had (in a win over Kansas City), he also had games where he looked ridiculous (such as being faked out of his boots on a 27-yard bootleg run by, of all people, Brett Favre). In fairness, McKelvin's play leveled out as the season wore on, his mistakes became far rarer, and his aforementioned flashes of brilliance became more frequent. That, more than anything, is encouraging when talking about Leodis.
I feel like I've spent the entire off-season harping on the importance of two things: quarterback play and playmakers. Without question, McKelvin is a playmaker; one could make the argument that he is Buffalo's most dynamic player with the ball not named Owens. In a secondary that is so starved for playmakers that rookie FS Jairus Byrd is seen as something of a savior, it's McKelvin that has the best shot to become the ballhawk the secondary lacks next season. In short, McKelvin is being asked to spearhead the playmaking aspects of two entirely different football units. If that doesn't place a player high on a list like this, I don't know what does.