When the 2006 season wrapped up, the Buffalo Bills had one big-name free agent on the market that many felt shouldn't be afforded the opportunity to walk: cornerback Nate Clements. Clements eventually signed with the San Francisco 49ers, and the Bills "rebounded" by relying on veterans Jason Webster and Kiwaukee Thomas, as well as their own developed starter, Terrence McGee.
A year later, there's no more veteran influence at the position. Clements is a distant memory, and neither Webster (signed with New England) or Thomas (released by the team) are expected back. In fact, there are only four cornerbacks currently on Buffalo's roster, and the most tenured of them is McGee. A full year removed from cornerback being a team strength, the position has a starkly different look heading into the 2008 season.
Youth Trumps Experience
Relying on young cornerbacks is not even close to being unique, especially when a team utilizes the Cover 2 scheme. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, architects of said defense, relied on Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly at very early stages of their respective careers; they would develop into one of the more dominant corner tandems in the league. The Chicago Bears drafted and developed two excellent corners for themselves in Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher. Just last season, the Indianapolis Colts let veterans Jason David and Nick Harper leave via free agency, choosing instead to rely on youngsters Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden as their starting corners. Indy had one of the best defenses in the league last season.
What Buffalo is doing is not unique - it's smart. The team has already strengthened their defensive core this off-season; on paper, the front seven looks to be more physical from top to bottom. That in itself is going to help out in areas such as run support, blitzing and the pass rush in general. Young cornerbacks can excel when a defense has that in place.
More Youthful Depth Needed
The team has three young players that provide a sturdy, Cover 2-experienced foundation to what is sure to be a young cornerback corps; McGee, Jabari Greer and Ashton Youboty should all expect to see significant playing time this season. McGee will start; Greer, based on his better-than-expected 2007 season, stands a great chance of starting as well. Youboty made a serious charge last season to start, and when he finally saw the field after shaking off some nagging injuries, made a few plays (see his interception off of Donovan McNabb in the season finale).
Beyond the trio of McGee, Greer and Youboty, however, the Bills have very little. Dustin Fox - a college teammate of Youboty's, as well as SS Donte Whitner - has special teams potential, but shouldn't be playing defense. The team is also expected to experiment with reserve safety John Wendling at the corner position this spring and summer, where his size would be excellent for run support. Both players are nice to have on the roster, especially this time of the year, but clearly, there is room for one or two more pieces to this puzzle.
Look for any help the Bills bring in at corner to come via the draft. Don't expect them to target players that necessarily fit their scheme, either. The Bills need playmakers in their secondary - players that can cause turnovers and have exceptional ball skills. Tackling is a must, but it should be secondary to ball skills at this point. That's why players such as Leodis McKelvin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are so tempting as first-round selections.
Prediction: I expect the Bills to take a corner with one of their first three picks this April. Speed, ball skills, and possibly even kick return skills will be targeted. Adding a player such as McKelvin, Rodgers-Cromartie, or even UConn's Tyvon Branch (an excellent returner) to the youthful foundation already in place seems ideal for the team's re-tooled defense.
The team is moving in the correct direction at this position. Careful drafting of one or two corners could make this position one of the more talented corner groups, top to bottom, that the team has had in years.