Everyone knows that the defensive bright spot for the Buffalo Bills last season was the secondary. Opposing quarterbacks finished with a 61.8 quarterback rating; the Bills also finished second in the NFL to the in allowing 184 passing yards per game. Moreover, the Bills finished second in the NFL with 28 interceptions. Quarterbacks had an average yard per attempt of six yards, which was also second in the league (sense a pattern here?). So it's safe to say that our cornerbacks and safeties were pretty impressive last season.
Even more impressive is the fact that their performance occurred without 2008 first round selection Leodis McKelvin for much of the year. McKelvin, 24, broke his fibula in Week 3 of the 2009 season and was subsequently put on Injured Reserve, ending his season. Up to that point, McKelvin was penciled in as one of the starting cornerbacks. Drayton Florence and Reggie Corner were forced to play bigger roles than anticipated, and performed admirably. McKelvin had a pretty miserable 2009 season - first the fumble against New England, then his house was vandalized, and finally he broke his leg. This weekend's rookie mini-camp offered the Bills, the new coaching staff, and fans the opportunity to contemplate a hint of what we missed last season and what we will hopefully see this upcoming season.
So how did McKelvin actually look, and why is he so important?
McKelvin had a few pass break-ups in the first morning session. Then, according to Chris Brown, McKelvin was the star of the May 7 afternoon session. He picked off potential starting quarterback Brian Brohm a couple of times. McKelvin stepped in front of Marcus Easley on a dig route to grab the first pick from Brohm; the second interception was on a ball Brohm threw slightly behind wide receiver Felton Huggins. The second INT looked like it had the possibility of serious return yards, possibly even a touchdown. Reportedly he was trash talking to the receivers a good deal, an example of "practice like you play." McKelvin said he was "feeling kind of great; I've been ready for this moment."
The rookie mini-camps are mandatory for actual rookies, but they are voluntary for players with less than three years of experience. Generally, you would think attending these sessions would be an easy decision to make with a new head coach to impress. Give McKelvin credit for showing up when he didn't necessarily have to, even though the following quote indicates the coaching staff might have tricked him: "They said I had to be here. I didn't mind if I had to be here or not because I wanted to be here. I wanted to come out here to get a feel of everything."
It might be easy to dismiss McKelvin as not that important because of how successful the Bills' pass defense was last year. That would be a grievous error. Last year's starting cornerbacks, Terrence McGee and Florence, are both 29 years old and together will turn 30 during the 2010 NFL season. Primary backup Reggie Corner - despite a fantastic name for his position - is 26 years of age and better served as a nickel CB and reserve player.
It's also imperative to keep in mind that the Bills are switching to a 3-4 defense. This doesn't have the radical effect on the secondary as it does the front seven, but it does impact the Bills' cornerbacks and safeties. Under Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell, the Tampa 2 system required the cornerbacks to play mostly zone coverage, with safety help over the top in the form of a two-deep shell. This played to the strengths (instincts, ability to read routes, knowledge of the defense) of players such as McGee. The Tampa 2 also allowed the Bills to look for cornerbacks with less than ideal speed and quickness (e.g. McGee). This season, you're going to see more man coverage than usual, and McGee could struggle. Conversely, McKelvin has the speed, instincts, hip fluidity and ability to close on the ball to succeed in any defense. He legitimately could be a star in this defense. When you combine the relatively advanced age of our starting cornerbacks with a defense that could be ill-suited to one of those players, it's clear that McKelvin's health and production are paramount to the team's future success, both this season and long-term.