"Young players have to step up." That has been the mantra of the Buffalo Bills' off-season. The veteran leadership from the (playoff-less) past is gone, and the face of the Bills is now a young coaching staff and even younger, albeit talented players. There is a lot of pressure on many of Buffalo's young guns to fill not only the leadership gap on this team, but also to prove that they are long-term solutions on the playing field as well.
There is one player on the roster, however, who thanks to some veteran depth does not have much pressure on him yet. He is not likely to see much playing time at the beginning of this coming season; however, this situation may be the best thing for the development of second-year cornerback Ashton Youboty.
A Second Rookie Season
Youboty's rookie season in Buffalo is well-documented. The tragic and unfortunate passing of his mother during training camp put a serious damper on his learning curve, and as a result he spent much of his rookie season on the inactive list. His one major appearance - as a nickel and dime back in a road victory over the Jets - showed Youboty's promise in Perry Fewell's Cover-2 scheme. Getting the start in place of the injured Terrence McGee, Youboty generally lined up on the outside (across from Jerricho Cotchery) in nickel and dime situations, allowing Thomas to play his normal slot role. The Bills' secondary performed admirably that day, and Youboty was a surprisingly big part of it.
Still, making three appearances in NFL games (while dressing for four) hardly constitutes a rookie season. Youboty now has a full slate of training camp practices and pre-season games ahead of him, which will properly prepare him for his first full season.
Little Pressure to Contribute Now
Despite appearing ready to make more of an impact this season, it's likely that Youboty will be looking up on the depth chart at the beginning of the season. McGee is slated to start at left corner, with Thomas and the newly acquired Jason Webster looking like the main competitors for the right side job. I fully expect the loser of that battle to be the nickel back, which will relegate Youboty to dime work and the kick coverage units on special teams. I'll repeat what I said above: this is ideal for Youboty's development.
The trio of McGee, Thomas and Webster have a combined 21 years of experience in the NFL, so while these three are by no means elite, they can at least be considered steady, consistent NFL veterans. It is clear to most Bills fans, however, that once Youboty is ready to assume a bigger role, the coaching staff will not hesitate to give it to him. Youboty's size (5'11", 190) and Ohio State tackling pedigree make him a very good fit as a defensive back in this scheme. This is a player who, once considered a first-round talent last season, slipped to the third round due to his being a very unproven and raw prospect. But the talent is there; once he has time to harness it, he could be an above-average player for this team. And if Youboty is as intelligent as the coaching staff believes he is, that jump could happen as soon as this season. Having McGee, Thomas and Webster to keep pressure off of the young corner will accelerate his growth process.
Giving Youboty more time to learn this defensive scheme while providing a veteran presence at cornerback was the true beauty of the Jason Webster signing. Believe me when I say that Thomas and Webster are not in the Bills' long-term plans. Youboty, however, is being counted on to be a big part of this team's future; the big question surrounding him now is whether or not he can make enough of an impact in the team's present to warrant that status.
I love the direction this team is headed, but I still don't see a team this young being serious playoff contenders in 2007. My hope is that by the end of the '07 season, Youboty has worked his way at least into a nickel role; ideally, Ashton will be ready to start in 2008, when the team will look to make its first real playoff push. That is not going to happen if the team is still relying on Thomas or Webster next season. Youboty's got the talent to be a cornerstone in this secondary. The 2007 season will allow us to see if he is up to the challenge. Look for Youboty to gradually earn more and more playing time as the season wears on; if all goes well, he'll nail down a starting job in the 2008 pre-season.