The 2013 season proved to be a tumultuous one for the Buffalo Bills at cornerback - if only early in the season, when two major contributors were injured early, forcing the since-released Justin Rogers into the starting lineup for a month, and safety Aaron Williams to spend a better part of a month playing the position.
By the time the regular season concluded, however, things had stabilized at the position: Stephon Gilmore had returned to full health and was looking more like his promising self, Leodis McKelvin was putting the finishing touches on his best season as a pro, and undrafted rookie Nickell Robey had emerged as a capable nickel corner with playmaking ability.
Just as the situation returned to normal and looked promising, however, the Bills are changing up their defensive scheme after the switch from Mike Pettine to Jim Schwartz. The good news is that Buffalo's defensive backs will still be coached up by Donnie Henderson, who is very popular amongst Buffalo's personnel at the position. What remains to be seen is whether or not the names below will be used in quite the same fashion in a new defense.
- Age: 23 (24 on 9/19)
- Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Team has a fifth-year option they can exercise between the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Scheduled to make $1.49 million in base salary in 2014.
Precious few Bills players entered the 2013 season carrying the burden of higher expectations than Gilmore, who was expected to become the next big thing at cornerback in the NFL following a strong close to his rookie season in 2012. A fractured wrist caused him to miss the first five games of the season, however, and it took him quite a while to get back into rhythm (and out of a giant hand cast) once he returned to the lineup. He did find that rhythm late in the year, however, and as he's still part of the team's talented under-25 crowd, he'll carry lofty expectations into his third pro season - though perhaps with more qualifiers than a year ago.
- Age: 28 (29 on 9/4)
- Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Owed a $1 million roster bonus at the start of the new league year (3/11, 4PM ET). Scheduled to make $2.1 million in base salary in 2014.
When the Bills signed McKelvin to a fairly lucrative four-year contract extension last March, which prevented him from becoming an unrestricted free agent, fans were surprised at the level of investment given McKelvin's struggles on his rookie contract. He took to a new defense very well, however, limiting the number of big plays he allowed dramatically while improving as a tackler and in making plays on the football. How he adjusts to yet another defensive scheme will be the question fans ask about him this summer, and it's not unfair to expect a regression back to the mean with Mike Pettine's scheme now in Cleveland.
- Age: 22
- Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $495,000 in base salary in 2014.
Very little press was given to the Bills' signing of the diminutive undrafted free agent out of USC last spring, but he quickly made a name for himself over the summer months and began the year as the Bills' dime back. Then he became the nickel back after Ron Brooks was injured in Week 1, and he held the job for the rest of his rookie season. Robey was less effective the further downfield he was asked to be; he was a key part of the team's blitz packages, and covered screens and short throws better than any Bills corner in years. Down the field, however, his size came into play, and teams were able to make big gains throwing his way. With less blitzing on the horizon, Robey's nickel job could be up for grabs next summer.
- Age: 25 (26 on 10/16)
- Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $570,000 in base salary in 2014.
Brooks started the 2013 regular season as the Bills' nickel back, beating out Robey for the job in training camp. A broken foot sidelined him for several weeks, however, and when it was all said and done, Brooks barely played on defense and was essentially a special teams coverage player in his second season. The former fourth-round pick out of LSU has a big summer ahead of him; he could contend for the nickel job again, but he'll have more to do to earn it this time around.
- Age: 26 (27 on 2/23)
- Contract: Exclusive Rights free agent
He's kicked around the league for a few years now, with several clubs interested in him athletically, but he spent most of the 2013 season on the Bills' inactive list.
- Age: 25 (26 on 10/20)
- Contract: Signed a reserve/future contract in January, and is under contract through the 2014 season.
This Georgia Tech alumnus was added to the practice squad late in the season, and signed a reserve/future deal in January, keeping him alive for the team's training camp roster in late July.
Opinion: Bills fans are severely overlooking this position from a need perspective. The jury is still out on Gilmore, despite his upside. We've seen much more bad than good from McKelvin throughout his six-year career. Robey's success may have been a product of the system he'll no longer be in, and Brooks has had a lot of trouble staying healthy. Depth is a major concern here. The Bills need at least one more player that they feel comfortable trotting out onto the field next season. Project-types won't cut it.
Observation: Of the four cornerbacks that played last season that are still with the team, only one (Gilmore) is taller than 5'10". That's where both McKelvin and Brooks measure in, and Robey stands just a hair over 5'7". GM Doug Whaley has made it a habit to bring in tall wide receivers; we should expect him to follow suit at cornerback, as well.
Outlook: Gilmore spearheads this group, and he's the type of athlete that should not be affected by scheme change - he's built to thrive in any defense played. The same may not be true of both McKelvin and Robey, and beyond those two players, the Bills have a slew of projects and unproven players. Jim Schwartz, Doug Marrone and Whaley need to carefully assess this position, the skills of their contributors and how they translate into the new defense; at a bare minimum, the team needs much higher-quality depth.
No. 1: Have your expectations for Gilmore changed at all based on his injury-shortened 2013 season?
No. 2: How comfortable are you in projecting the same level of success from McKelvin and Robey in a new defense?
No. 3: Beyond Gilmore, is the team's lack of size at the cornerback position concerning to you?