Chan Gailey's first, and already his boldest, move as new head coach of the Buffalo Bills has been to install a 3-4 defense, led by defensive coordinator George Edwards. While no one's sure exactly what that 3-4 system will look like, it'll be a fairly dramatic change for a Bills team that has run the 4-3 as its base defense since Gregg Williams' arrival as head coach in 2001.
While the majority of that overhaul will take place in the defensive front seven, perhaps Gailey's smartest coaching hire came in the retention of defensive backs coach George Catavolos. Hired by Dick Jauron in 2006, Catavolos has decades of experience coaching in the secondary, and having spent four years in Buffalo already, he'll be keenly aware of exactly what type of talent the team possesses in the defensive backfield.
Buffalo has invested quite a bit into the cornerback position over the last four years. Of the seven they currently employ, four were Jauron-era draft picks, one received a lucrative contract extension in 2009, and another was one of the team's best and most critical free agent signings of the past year. After the jump, you'll find our analysis of Buffalo's talented and deep cornerback position.
What the new regime might be looking for
Not much. The top of the depth chart appears to be set, and there is more depth here than at pretty much any other spot on the roster. You can never have enough good defensive backs, however, so to assume that this position will be completely left alone would be unwise. With the switch to the 3-4 coming up, cover corners with man coverage skills will be emphasized far more than they were under Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell; that's not to say, however, that Buffalo's current corners lack those skills.
Buffalo currently employs a lot of defensive backs, but for the purposes of this discussion and projecting where players should fit into the new defensive scheme, we're listing seven players as cornerbacks.
Terrence McGee. The veteran has put together a pretty solid career in Buffalo. He signed a rather lucrative contract extension last season, which could keep McGee - who will turn 30 during the 2010 season - in town for the entirety of his NFL career. He's still got plenty left in the tank, but I'm curious to see how he handles more man coverage responsibilities as the Bills switch to a 3-4.
Contract status: 4 years remaining. Owed $13.7M in base salaries and $6M in non-prorated bonuses.
Drayton Florence. Florence will also turn 30 during the 2010 season. He cut his NFL teeth in San Diego, where he was a nickel corner playing man coverage in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense. Given that experience and his excellent 2009 season, Florence might draw opposing teams' top receivers more often than McGee next year. I don't foresee any circumstance in which Florence isn't a starter for this defense next year.
Contract status: Entering final year of 2-year, $6.6M deal.
Leodis McKelvin. Buffalo's first round draft choice in 2008, McKelvin's career has gotten off to something of a rocky start. He hasn't developed as quickly as hoped, a problem exacerbated by his only appearing in three games last season before hitting IR with a fractured fibula. Right now, McKelvin's potential remains solid, but he'll need to earn his keep as a sub-package corner and as a return man, where he was one of the game's most explosive playmakers as a rookie in 2008.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $3.0225M in base salaries.
Reggie Corner. He's been very up and down in his first two years. He's played a lot of nickel and dime back, and for every excellent pass break-up or open-field tackle he registers - he's had a fair few, by the way - he'll make mistakes in space. He's not a superb tackler, but that might not be as big an issue under George Edwards. There's certainly enough here to work with, making Corner a solid option as a No. 4 or a No. 5 corner.
Contract status: 2 years remaining. Owed $1.025M in base salaries.
Ashton Youboty. The 2006 third round pick has been a major disappointment, showing an inability to avoid nagging injuries while riding the pine. In the rare instances he's seen the field, he's acquitted himself quite well, though. He's an RFA, and as he's unlikely to garner much interest league-wide, a low tender could be enough to bring him back in to compete for playing time.
Contract status: Restricted Free Agent
Ellis Lankster. He made some nice plays during the 2009 pre-season and training camp as a rookie seventh-round pick. He has a shot to develop into a nice sub-package corner, and is absolutely worth keeping around to, again, compete for playing time and a roster spot.
Contract status: Entering second year of multi-year contract.
Lydell Sargeant. Sargeant, like Lankster (but to a lesser extent), impressed last pre-season as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State. Then he got hurt before the regular season began and ended up as one of the first of many players to hit IR. Time will tell if he returns as a camp body.
Contract status: Undisclosed. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.
Who stays? Who goes?
McGee, Florence and McKelvin aren't going anywhere. They're good players, and each has a prominent role to play. I see no reason for the team to jettison solid young players like Corner or Lankster; both have potential and have familiarity with secondary coach George Catavolos. The same goes with Youboty; he's an RFA and unlikely to receive much interest league-wide, so why not let him compete (again) for a spot? That gives you six corners right there; add in another player or two to fill out the training camp roster, and we've got enough talent and depth here to avoid complaining for a while.
If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
Florence, not McGee, draws top receivers next year. That's not a knock on McGee at all; Florence is just better in man coverage. McGee is a steady performer that will still play on the outside, and the new coaching staff might even let him play some nickel while getting reps for McKelvin on the edge. Leo's a guy that won't get better unless he's getting reps, so the team needs to find ways to get him onto the field if he's going to be someone's long-term replacement.
Names to keep an eye on
I'm not putting anyone here, because it's fairly clear that this position ranks quite low on the priority list. Keep an eye on extension talks for Florence; Nix drafted him in San Diego, and he really is an excellent player. Those probably won't happen until summer or perhaps even during the season - if they happen at all, obviously.
Previous installments of the State of the Bills Roster series: QB, RB, WR, TE, OT, G/C, DE, NT, OLB, ILB.
|CB1||Drayton Florence*||Leodis McKelvin*||Ashton Youboty|
|CB2||Terrence McGee*||Reggie Corner||Ellis Lankster|
Italics = Players that could earn starting spots
Bold = Projected free agent re-signings or tenders
* = Player I consider a mortal lock for the 2010 roster