Former Buffalo Bills special teams coach Bobby April is widely regarded as one of the very best at his particular craft. An NFL coach since 1991, April spent six seasons with the Bills, including his last four with the added title of assistant head coach. Responsible for putting together teams that perennially ranked near the top of the NFL in most statistical categories, April will continue his stellar coaching career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010.
April was afforded a lot of influence in Buffalo. Special teams drills made up a large portion of training camp practices, which caught the eye of Bills fans (along with April's megaphone and fiery on-field personality). What's more, April typically was allowed to keep one - but usually more than one - player on the roster that was dedicated purely to the pursuit of special teams. Players like Coy Wire, Sam Aiken, Ryan Neufeld, Josh Stamer, Justin Jenkins and John Wendling rarely saw the field save for special teams play - and all excelled in that particular area.
With April out of town, Buffalo has gotten away from having specialist-only players on the roster, instead attempting to build depth with young players that can actually play the positions they're asked to play. (Garrison Sanborn, a long snapper, doesn't count in that discussion.) Sure, a lot of these young players can also play special teams, but that's the point - depth has been a serious, serious issue for the Bills in recent years, and employing these types of players has hurt that depth in the long run. That's why linebacker-turned-safety Jon Corto is facing such an uphill climb to make the final 53-man roster come September.
Corto is a great local story. Born and raised in Orchard Park and hailing from tiny Sacred Heart, Corto has made the Bills' final roster in each of the last two seasons, coming full circle to play for his hometown NFL team. The 6'1", 220-pound Corto has appeared in all 32 games over the past two seasons, picking up 32 tackles and a forced fumble in the process.
He's also one of a select few players that has appeared on virtually every special teams unit. He blocks for kick and punt returns; if you recall the scintillating return touchdown Roscoe Parrish scored in a 2008 season-opening win over Seattle, Corto threw a critical block near the end of the play. He also covers kicks and has shown great athletic versatility in playing the difficult gunner position on punts. A team-first guy that relishes his minor, yet important role, Corto is the type of guy that coaches love having on the back end of their roster.
But things are changing at One Bills Drive. It goes without saying that the Bills will be asking a large number of young depth players to play special teams, but will they dedicate roster spots - again, Sanborn notwithstanding - to pure specialists? Corto might be the only player on the roster seriously affected by the ultimate answer to that question, because he's proven his worth at the NFL level, and though the Bills have moved him back to safety, it's crystal clear that he's not going to see the field at that position barring a catastrophic amount of injuries.
We know what Corto is. He's no Steve Tasker, but he's about as dependable and versatile as a pure specialist can be in this league - and he enjoys his role. But whether or not he continues to play for his hometown team in Buffalo could depend entirely on head coach Chan Gailey's preference for filling out the back end of his roster - and there's no guarantee that Gailey (along with new special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, who, keep in mind, coached the likes of Tasker and Mark Pike) will place the same emphasis on special teams that April and the previous regime did when making those decisions.