Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag, 6/20: Leodis McKelvin's prospects

Jared Wickerham

Topics of discussion in this week's Bills mailbag include Leodis McKelvin's prospects in 2014 and beyond, why Jerry Hughes is projected as a starter over Manny Lawson, and how Chris Gragg factors into the tight end race.

Buffalo Bills minicamp finished up on Thursday, which means we've officially entered the 30-day dead period of the offseason. Training camp begins exactly one month from today, on July 20, but in the meantime, players are away from team facilities, and we don't have the benefit of free agency or draft discussions to tide us over. (Though, to be fair, the sale of the team could spruce things up just a touch.)

As such, we'll be on a constant lookout for story ideas for the next month, and that's especially true of our weekly mailbag post, the latest of which you're reading right now. Y'all have been excellent about keeping our email inbox (buffalorumblings@gmail.com) full to bursting with quality questions, but these are also like fresh produce: left to linger too long, they become unusable. That's all to say that if you have any Bills-related question on your mind that you'd like to see explored this summer, by all means, send it our way.

On to this week's questions!

I recall Leodis McKelvin really struggling with zone coverage during his early years and then improving when switching to man coverage. How much of his struggles and improvement would you attribute to coverage type, and how much to his maturation as a player?

This is the sort of rhetorical trapping that we, as fans, tend to fall into in the offseason, when what we saw on the field the previous season stagnates, and discussions crystallize into half-truths. Nothing is ever this cut and dried, where we can attribute a player's meteoric rise - from Chan Gailey's doghouse, to "how the heck did he land that contract?!", to "hey, he's a pretty good player!" - to one specific factor.

I've no doubt that Mike Pettine's coverage tendencies helped McKelvin's production increase in 2013. The proof is in the pudding. But it's just one part of a much larger picture. After two years in and out of Gailey's good graces, the Bills reaffirmed their confidence in McKelvin with a nice contract and a starting job. That undoubtedly helped his confidence. The Bills were also a dynamic pass rushing team last season, which will help any cornerback's performance, regardless of their flaws. There is probably some truth to the idea that McKelvin's comparatively steady hand was romanticized a bit thanks to the Bills' early-season injury situation; Justin Rogers was an easy whipping boy early, and then Stephon Gilmore struggled in his return from a broken wrist. It's possible we were just distracted into thinking McKelvin was better than he actually was.

The Bills were smart to hedge their bets at cornerback with a consistent veteran presence like Corey Graham. It gives them options if McKelvin falters. We'll see if a new system causes McKelvin's production to dip, but I'm not overly worried; McKelvin is coming off of his best season, and it's easy to forget that he had some great moments playing under Dick Jauron. He's a far more experienced and savvy player today than he was five years ago.

Thanks for the question, BobDH!

Why is Jerry Hughes being labeled by most as the starter over Manny Lawson? Hughes is good at rushing the passer, but is weak against the run. Lawson seems to be the opposite. Is Hughes getting the starting job merely because the prominence of the passing game these days, or is he really the all-around better player?

It's a scheme thing. Pettine's base defense was a 4-3 Under, basically a 4-3 masked as a 3-4, and Lawson served as the edge player that dropped off the strong side into coverage. (Lawson also played some traditional linebacker in nickel looks.) Jim Schwartz skews more toward a traditional 4-3, where there are three pure linebackers on the field instead of two, and the edge players are simply upfield guys. That role suits Hughes far better than it suits Lawson.

In fact, Lawson spoke about his new role just this week with Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News, and explained it quite succinctly. For Lawson, less coverage likely means a lesser role.

"It’s really see ball, go get ball," Lawson said. "You don’t really have to worry about dropping too much into coverage and covering people man to man. I really like the engage with somebody immediately and make a play from there, as opposed to having to read and then see if you need to engage. I’d rather go ahead get it done and over with. To be a defensive end again and be with these guys again is fun. We’re going to have fun doing it."

To me, the conversation at end starts with Hughes, and how much the team can confidently keep him on the field given his lack of ideal size to consistently defend the run. If everyone stays healthy, Hughes will play more than any end on the team save for Mario Williams, but there may be room for a platoon on the right side of the line. Right now, Lawson and Jarius Wynn are the names to remember in that conversation.

Thanks for the question, Wild_Bills!

Scott Chandler, Lee Smith and Tony Moeaki sit atop the tight end depth chart. Where does that leave Chris Gragg? Could he be used at fullback?

First, let's talk about the shape of Buffalo's offense. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network, I think, sums it up nicely (and it's not anything we haven't heard before):

The speed in the passing game is not coming from Buffalo's tight end group. The Bills have a lot of mouths to feed at their two most loaded positions, running back and wide receiver. Without a top-level talent at tight end, that position looks to me like it will become one of situational football, with certain players appearing at specific times.

Power running teams use tight ends a lot. This opinion is sure to be cast aside quickly, given how absurdly often he is dismissed, but I'm of the opinion that Smith has the best job security of any Bills tight end currently on the roster. He's really good at one valued skill in Buffalo's offense - run blocking - while the rest of the group is average at best (and below-average in general). Smith has a role to play on offense; the rest is up in the air.

Then, when we get to the passing game, Chandler and Moeaki offer more experience, savvy and most importantly, size, than does Gragg. At fullback, the Bills have two players in Frank Summers and Evan Rodriguez that offer some versatility outside the realm of run blocking; Gragg and Rodriguez are rather similar athletically. It's unlikely Gragg becomes a factor there. Between two one-dimensional tight ends in Smith and Gragg, Smith has far more utility to this Bills offense, particularly with Chandler and Moeaki able to add elements to the passing attack.

Thanks for the question, Ashton!

One last plea, Bills fans: send your questions to buffalorumblings@gmail.com. In return, you will have my eternal gratitude.

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