March 28, 2012; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks cornerback Stephon Gilmore participates in drills during the South Carolina pro day at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-US PRESSWIRE
The Buffalo Bills are entering the 2012 NFL Draft in a frame of mind that they haven't had in quite some time: they don't seem convinced that they need a starter with their first-round pick. Sure, they'd like to get one - who wouldn't? - but the way GM Buddy Nix and his associates have been speaking of late, they're clearly comfortable with their current personnel in several key areas.
Still, the team knows at which positions they need to provide reinforcements, and haven't been shy about talking about options they have in those areas this week.
Over the next few days, we're going to take one more look at the Bills' four most prominent "need" areas - including the current personnel that resides there, and what any draft pick might be expected to do at the position should they become the newest member of the Bills.
CORNERBACK: Not much has changed for the Bills at this position since the 2011 season ended - the team re-structured the contract of oft-injured veteran Terrence McGee, and that's been the only transaction - and that may be the problem that's led to a lot of draft-day speculation about this position.
Players with defined roles: It's not easy to write about this position in a defined way, because too much about the incumbent players is undefined. McGee, Drayton Florence and Leodis McKelvin all have extensive playing time in Buffalo and with this regime, and two 2011 rookies - Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers - are regarded highly and have seen significant playing time, as well. It's conceivable that any combination of those five players could lock down a significant role next season; all we can do is handicap the odds for each guy. It's worth noting, however, that Rogers - a seventh-round pick last April - figures prominently into the equation as the team's kick returner.
If training camp were to start today: Again, we can only guess, but it's not difficult to imagine the two veterans (Florence and McGee) running with the ones, with the three younger guys (Williams, Rogers and McKelvin) looking to unseat them.
The bigger picture: We haven't really given you much concrete to go on at this point, and that's because there are more questions than answers at this position. McGee and Florence will both turn 32 this season; McGee has missed more games (17) than he's played (15) in the last two seasons, while Florence - perhaps the best-known commodity of the bunch - is coming off of a disappointing season. McKelvin, the 2008 first-round pick, likely would have ended the 2011 season fifth on the depth chart had McGee been healthy; as it was, he barely played defense, though he did make some plays as a punt returner and special teams coverage player. The team loves 2011 second-round pick Williams, but he, too, was injured twice last season, while Rogers - the small-school gem from Richmond - seems more like a nickel back than a guy that can be reliably counted on on the edge at this point. Nothing is set in stone, and age and injury concerns mar the group as a whole.
How that picture could change: The Bills have work to do at this position. They don't need to rush to do it, but the depth chart here is going to look markedly different in the next year or two, as the team will gradually get younger, bigger and (hopefully) healthier in the defensive backfield. GM Buddy Nix did not draft a cornerback in 2010; he drafted two last year, and it's not out of the question that he'll continue double-drafting at the position until he feels more comfortable with the talent and depth at the position.
Round 1 possibilities: Morris Claiborne (LSU) is generally regarded as the top cornerback available, but most experts believe he'll be off the board between picks three (Minnesota) and five (Tampa Bay). Two big names that Bills fans should be hyper-aware of on draft day: Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama). Nix spoke at length about both players last week, and it's likely that at least one of them will be available when the Bills pick in the first round - although Gilmore's stock is so hot right now that it wouldn't be shocking if he's gone, perhaps as soon as No. 7 overall to Jacksonville.
Other intriguing prospects: Janoris Jenkins - he of several off-field incidents that caused him to shift from Florida to North Alabama - is widely considered an elite-level talent, but those red flags could knock him out of Round 1. He would be a highly intriguing possibility should he be available when the Bills pick in the second round (No. 41 overall). Other players of note include Trumaine Johnson (Montana), Josh Robinson (Central Florida), Jamell Fleming (Oklahoma), Josh Norman (Oklahoma) and DeQuan Menzie (Alabama). Robinson, Fleming and Menzie all made pre-draft visits to Orchard Park; Robinson is an outstanding athlete, while Fleming and Menzie are bigger players that fit well as zone corners or potentially at safety. Johnson is a big athlete that has hurt himself with some poor 40 times this off-season, while Norman fits the big, physical zone corner mold as well.
Five questions for you: These are some relevant questions, in our opinion, to be answering and dissecting insofar as the cornerback position goes.
- How concerned are you about the fact that Williams may give the Bills a second potentially injury-prone cornerback, joining the veteran McGee?
- All five corners with experience on the roster could lock down a job, but is any one of them deserving of being handed one based on their play in 2011?
- A dominant pass rush helps your coverage, but great coverage helps your pass rush. Is it fair to blame some of Buffalo's pass rushing woes last season on the secondary?
- Should the Bills focus on size at this position? Or does it make sense to carry one or two smaller, quicker corners to match up with the smaller, quicker slot receivers prominent in today's NFL?
- Does the fact that the Bills are seeking numbers at this position devalue the position at all in the early rounds in your eyes?