Cornerback is one of those positions in the NFL where, unless you're absolutely loaded like the 2013 Seattle Seahawks were, you can't be overly comfortable about the depth situation. The Buffalo Bills felt that effect early last season, when injuries depleted the position and the team patched together their defensive backfield for a couple of weeks.
But all in all, it was also a very good season for Buffalo's cornerbacks. Only three played a significant amount of snaps - we'll discuss that in a minute - but those three players all performed well enough to lay strong claims to those roles heading into the 2014 season. A defensive scheme change will re-issue some thought-to-be answered questions about those players, but all in all, there's no reason that the Bills should feel uncomfortable about the top end of their depth chart.
Still... there are just enough questions on the surface of this position to be worried about it. Which might help explain why the team seems so intent on addressing it (and perhaps early) in the 2014 NFL Draft next week.
Talent on hand
Those three players that are locked into roles at corner: Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Nickell Robey. All three played a huge chunk of snaps for the 2013 Bills at the position, and no other cornerback on the roster played more than 43 snaps last season.
Gilmore is the headliner. 2013 was supposed to be the year that he emerged as one of the league's best young players at the position, but a preseason wrist fracture kept him out until October, and he returned to the lineup with a large cast and a great deal of rust to rid himself of. By the time the season was over, Gilmore had regained some form, but 2013 was a bit of a lost season for him. Still only 23 years old (he'll be 24 in September), the sky remains the limit for the 2012 first-round pick.
Fans worried when the Bills gave McKelvin a $17 million contract and a starting job last spring, but he responded with his best season as a pro, severely limiting the number of big plays he surrendered while making many more plays on the ball in the air. Time will tell if that was an anomaly, or a product of the Mike Pettine scheme, but he earned the starting job he'll have at the outset of the 2014 season. Similarly, Robey, the undrafted free agent that quickly earned the team's nickel role, will have to prove he can overcome his size limitations - which were occasionally a problem for him even in his outstanding rookie season - in a new defense. He made more than enough big plays last season to enter camp as the nominal starter at nickel.
Buffalo's most expensive free agent signing was seven-year veteran Corey Graham, a standout special teams performer in Chicago and then an excellent nickel corner with size (6'0", 196) in Baltimore. It was initially expected that he'd give the Bills a different type of option in the slot, plus depth on the outside, but now the team is being intentionally vague about his role, indicating that he may end up playing safety. Regardless of the definition of his role, the Bills didn't pay him $16 million to sit on the bench. He'll be on the field a lot, and a major part of the team's passing sub packages and its depth picture.
Need assessment: Size Depth
Beyond those four players - three of them officially listed at corner - the Bills have little to nothing in the way of proven depth. The notable name buried on the depth chart is Ron Brooks (5'10", 190), a 2012 fourth-round pick whose career has been derailed by two separate broken feet that cost him roughly half of each of his first two seasons.
Graham was signed in part because he brought size to the position beyond Gilmore. The team has preferred size at the position for years now - Gilmore (6'1", 190) and Aaron Williams (6'0", 199) were their biggest investments at the position, at least before Williams switched positions - but the 185-pound McKelvin and the sub-5'8" Robey lack it in very key ways. Not only do the Bills need more size depth in the event that Graham plays safety, but they also need it if McKelvin or Robey falters.
The Bills seem very cognizant of that need, as evidenced by their bringing in a whopping six cornerbacks this spring. They vary in perceived value - from first-round picks all the way down to day three prospects - but they all share similar size, length and physicality prerequisites that the Bills have obviously put in place. Here's the list.
|Kyle Fuller||CB||Virginia Tech||5116||190||4.49|
|Bradley Roby||CB||Ohio State||5110||194||4.39|
Virginia Tech's Fuller is one of the hottest names in the draft right now; he would be a quality backup-plan option for the Bills at No. 9 if things don't break their way in areas of more urgent need. Roby, based on his athleticism alone, is also a likely first-round pick, and many consider Clemson's Breeland to be the best press corner prospect available this year. That makes him a good bet to be taken in Round 2 at some point. Gaines will rise based on his athleticism, Cockrell is a rock solid mid-round prospect, and Aikens is a worthwhile Day 3 name to keep in mind, as well.
Where the Bills target a cornerback - it's a very strong bet that they will be drafting one at some point - will dictate where Graham ends up playing. An early-round contributor would make Graham's value at safety skyrocket; in addition to Fuller and Roby, Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State) and Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) are well-regarded first-round prospects. There is no elite-level corner prospect available, but several quality options means that we'll likely see a run at the position at some point next Thursday night.
There are several other names outside of the top round that fit the Bills' preferred athletic profile that will be picked as well: Breeland, Gaines, Jaylen Watkins (Florida), Keith McGill (Utah), Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska), Marcus Roberson (Florida) and Pierre Desir (Lindenwood) are just some of the more notable names on the list. The cornerback position seems to be among the deepest in the draft class every year at this point, and the Bills would be very wise to take advantage of that fact next week.
Hopes remain high for Gilmore, and opinions are generally positive about Robey, who is very fun to root for. McKelvin, however, is a name not often discussed that is coming off a strong season, but had several weak ones preceding it. How comfortable are we with the notion that McKelvin can carry his 2013 form over into a new defensive scheme?