The Buffalo Bills have a very deep secondary. From top to bottom, the Bills have quality players on their roster at both cornerback and safety, and head coach Chan Gailey knows it. The team features three starters - two at corner, one at safety - that can best be described as "solid" in Terrence McGee, Drayton Florence and Donte Whitner. Several reserves, including Reggie Corner, George Wilson and Bryan Scott, can be labeled in a similar fashion. Contributions from Ashton Youboty and Jon Corto, given their predicaments, can also be described as "solid." To top it off, the team has several intriguing young prospects rounding out the depth chart.
Solid. Intriguing. But where is the star power?
Well, there's Jairus Byrd, to start. The second-year safety is coming off of an excellent rookie season in which he recorded nine interceptions, earned a Pro Bowl berth, and finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting (twice). No one's sure exactly how good Byrd can be, but he's pretty darn good as it is, and he's arguably the best playmaker on the entire roster. More star power is needed.
That's why Leodis McKelvin is so important to the future of this secondary. Buffalo's defensive backs will be solid in 2010. The group has a chance to be special if McKelvin, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, lives up to his promise and emerges as a Pro Bowl-level talent in his third professional season.
Two years after McKelvin became Buffalo's first-round pick in 2008, anonymous AFC pro personnel scouts are still raving about not only McKelvin's abilities, but the depth of the 2008 cornerback class as a whole. In this recent article, said scout placed McKelvin, along with Tracy Porter, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib, Mike Jenkins and Brandon Flowers, in a group where "every one of those guys will end up being a Pro Bowl player."
Buffalo's previous coaching staff certainly thought highly of McKelvin; not only did they select him No. 11 overall, but it was McKelvin's presence that caused the team to let free agent cornerback Jabari Greer walk prior to the 2009 regular season. That decision proved to be bold, as Greer, in helping New Orleans to a Super Bowl win, graded out as the second-best cornerback in the league in 2009, behind New York's Darrelle Revis. Meanwhile, McKelvin appeared in just three games before landing on IR.
McKelvin has a lot to live up to. Buffalo has developed, and subsequently lost, several cornerbacks over the past several years - a list that includes Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, and now Greer. The Troy product came into Buffalo as a rookie with equal, if not superior, billing from various scouting services than his predecessors. Clearly, that expectation of future greatness still exists, given the statements from Mr. Anonymous AFC Pro Personnel Man.
We knew when his NFL career began that there would be a grace period for McKelvin, as he was making the transition from tiny Troy to the big-time, and he'd be doing it at one of the most difficult positions to play in American football. He endured an up-and-down rookie season, where he was beat like a drum early and often, but also flashed enough promise to intrigue not only his coaches and teammates, but the fan base. He was especially excellent as a kick returner, ranking third in the league in yards-per-return average (28.2) among players with more than 10 returns.
His sophomore campaign was slightly less memorable. His kick return fumble in Week 1 in New England set up the Patriots' go-ahead points; his lawn was subsequently vandalized for this gaffe. Two weeks later, he was lost for the season after fracturing his fibula.
Here's the thing: McKelvin doesn't need to be a Byrd-level playmaker in a given season to become the star the secondary needs him to be. He does need more than two interceptions - if he gets enough playing time, that's nowhere near an unreasonable goal - but more importantly, he needs to polish up his technique and his mental preparation so that he can be the shut-down corner this team needs.
This is a division that features outstanding wide receivers - we'll see Randy Moss, Wes Welker (if he avoids the PUP list), Brandon Marshall, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery twice each - and particularly in the case of Moss and Marshall, the Bills need to find ways to slow those players down. In his last six games against Buffalo, Moss has hauled in 38 passes for 520 yards, with a whopping seven touchdowns. Marshall has faced the Bills twice in the last three years, picking up 15 receptions, 181 yards and a score in those two games.
The Bills have solid covered. They need better than solid; they need elite. McKelvin may not ever be an elite playmaker, but he can be an elite coverage corner. His game needs maturity, and he needs experience and confidence. When he attains those, the sky's the limit. Should that development happen any time in 2010, Buffalo will feature one of the best two or three defensive backfields in the league.
Ten Bills To Decide 2010
10. G/C Eric Wood
9. ILB Andra Davis