This is our final posting in our series examining the Buffalo Bills' roster on a position-by-position basis. We'll wrap up the festivities tomorrow morning with a recap post and an altogether-too-early-to-matter final roster projection. (What else do we have to talk about?)
In the last two years under Perry Fewell - 2008 and 2009 - the Bills got away from its zone-heavy look defensively and started sprinkling more and more man coverage into their defensive packages. The complexity hurt Buffalo's pass defense in '08, but an extra year of experience and some terrible quarterbacks did wonders for the unit in '09. Not much will change in the back end of the defense despite the conversion to the 3-4, so expect more man coverage with a healthy dose of zone tossed in to keep opponents honest. That's the only way to do it in today's NFL, so Buffalo's corners will need to be smart and detail-oriented, not to mention physically talented.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
29 - Drayton Florence. I'm a big fan of Florence's, and not just because he's a good football player and one of the more accessible people on the Bills' roster. I like him because he's back in the defense that made him one of the league's best young corners during his stint with San Diego. Depending on what happens with other corners on the roster, Florence is still probably a better fit as a nickel back, but he played very well a year ago as the team's starting replacement for Leodis McKelvin. Big and physical with underrated speed, Florence is the closest thing the Bills have to a shut-down corner at the moment, and will likely be a starter as long as he's healthy in 2010.
24 - Terrence McGee. Entering his eighth pro season, McGee is coming off a season in which he signed a five-year contract extension and appeared in the fewest number of games in his career. Buffalo has nice depth at corner, but it'd be nice if McGee didn't miss five games this season. He's lost some of his game-breaking speed, and he's not great in man coverage. He's nearing the stage of his career where he'll be a better nickel option, but for now, he's still Buffalo's best, most battle-tested corner. It'll be curious to see how much he's protected this year when man coverages are called; that's where a guy like McKelvin can steal a lot of reps from the soon-to-be 30-year-old.
26 - Ashton Youboty. This is very much a "prove it" year for Youboty; he fell out of favor with Buffalo's previous coaching staff, and saw very little playing time despite having ample opportunity to crack the lineup a year ago. He'll be playing under the same position coach, so he's got a lot of respect-earning to do to make the final cut. When he's been on the field - that happened mostly in 2008 - he's been a really solid sub-package defender. At best, he's the fifth corner this year, but making the roster (and staying healthy) would be an achievement.
27 - Reggie Corner. 'Ha! His name is Corner! How appropriate!' And thus ends the analysis you'd get from anyone paying only superficial attention to the Buffalo Bills. Corner's had an up-and-down start to his NFL career, but he became much more consistent in '09 playing predominantly a nickel role. He's not a fast player, but he's quick and active, which suits him well for the slot; if he's playing outside, the Bills are in trouble, but otherwise, he's a very nice depth player.
28 - Leodis McKelvin. No Bill had a more gut-wrenching, disappointing season in 2009 than McKelvin. Handed a starting job after the departure of , McKelvin's opening-night fumble helped the Bills squander a lead at New England, and then he was lost for the season in a Week 3 loss to New Orleans. Entering his third professional season, McKelvin won't be handed back his starting job, and that's exactly the way Bills fans should want it. McKelvin is poised for big things, but working back into the lineup will help him achieve those things quicker. He'll start as the nickel back - he'll play a lot in that role - and ideally, he'll emerge as the team's top corner by year's end.
25 - Ellis Lankster. This is a guy that turned into everyone's favorite "told you so" story a year ago, transforming from much-maligned seventh-round pick (thanks solely to the position he plays) into quite the pre-season playmaker. He did make 10 in-game appearances for the Bills last year, but rarely saw time at cornerback. He's a physically gifted player with a flair for finding the ball, but he's very much on everyone's radar this year. Another strong pre-season could cement him as the team's fifth corner.
47 - Cary Harris. He didn't make the final roster a year ago after a highly disappointing training camp and pre-season, where he lost reps to Lankster and even Lydell Sargeant. But he stuck on the practice squad, got a late-season start at free safety, and came away with two interceptions in his rookie season. Harris might split his reps between corner and safety during camp, and given the depth at this position, he might have a far better chance at staying if he can continue to make plays from the free safety position.
40 - Lydell Sargeant. Entering his second pro season, Sargeant, a Penn State product, was having a quietly impressive training camp and pre-season in 2009 before a knee injury ended his season before final cuts were made. Sargeant is very similar to Corner, albeit with better size (6'1", 187) and ball skills. He lacks top-end speed, so he's limited to the slot, but he could really excel in that role. He's got an excellent chance at cracking the back end of Buffalo's roster, but very few are including him in those conversations.
42 - Stephan Virgil. Hailing from Virginia Tech, the 5'11", 189-pound Virgil went undrafted because of barely-passable speed (he clocked in at 4.7 in the 40-yard dash). Virgil will be limited to a sub-package role in the NFL because of those speed issues, but he's got a chance at sticking because of his toughness and competitiveness. He'll need to be a phenomenal special teams player to stick with the Bills, but he's got the instincts to play in this league.
41 - John Destin. An undrafted rookie free agent out of Tulsa, the 6'0", 195-pound Destin has excellent size and athleticism for the position, but is very technically unsound and needs a lot of polish. He'd be a highly intriguing add to the practice squad, but has virtually no shot of making the final roster.
Florence is in the second year of the two-year, $6 million deal he signed last year to replace . McGee signed a lucrative extension last September; he's got four years and $13.7 million in base salaries to go on that deal (and also got a fat $6 million roster bonus this past March). McKelvin is technically under contract for four more years, but as that final year is voidable, we'll call it three years and a hair over $3 million remaining on his rookie deal. Corner, also still on his rookie deal, has two years remaining at just a little over $1 million in total.
Youboty signed a one-year tender offer in March, making him a free agent after this season. Harris is in the same boat, having signed a similar deal as an Exclusive Rights free agent. Precise details on the contracts of Lankster, Sargeant, Virgil and Destin aren't known, though it's believed all of them originally signed multi-year deals; Lankster and Sargeant are both obviously entering their second pro season.
This position is an excellent one for the Bills. There's a very nice mix of speed and size, veteran and youth, physicality and finesse, and zone and man strengths. Discounting Destin, whose highly intriguing athleticism and potential won't outweigh the fact that he's too raw to make an NFL roster at this juncture, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the other five corners without automatic roster bids make this team. That said, some of the deeper depth corners have a far better shot at cracking the roster than others; Virgil, for example, is a solid talent, but there's just too much going on in front of him for him to have a legitimate shot at sticking.
McGee, Florence, McKelvin and Corner are absolutely certain to make the final roster, with the usual caveat of injury being the only possible deterrent. All four will see significant playing time, with Corner the most limited in that he'll ideally only see sub-package work in the slot.
That's where things get tricky. Do the Bills keep five corners or six? Do they keep a guy that can moonlight at safety and keep 10 DBs, or just keep six strict corners for the same purpose? With four corners and four safeties locks for the roster, the Bills will only be keeping one or two more defensive backs as it is, and a safety likeor could complicate the picture at cornerback.
I believe that the two best defensive backs on the roster after the eight locks are both corners; therefore, I'm predicting that both Lankster and Sargeant make the final cut. Keep an eye on Harris, though - his free safety versatility is rather appealing.