During the second half of the 2014 season, the Buffalo Bills made a noticeable ascent on defense. A late-season stretch transformed them from a good unit into a borderline dominant one, with back-to-back strong showings against elite passers Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers (who combined to complete just 50 percent of their passes, at 5.97 yards per attempt, with no touchdowns and four interceptions in those games) proving to be the pinnacle of their success.
Buffalo's outstanding pass rush, paced by three Pro Bowlers (two of which were first-team All-Pro selections), receives the majority of the credit for that success. But the team's (fairly) young secondary is deserving of a lot of the credit, as well.
With a strong mix of steady veterans and young athletes, the Bills have managed to continue to field a strong secondary - one that has bettered with age - despite the free agent defections of Jairus Byrd a year ago, and Da'Norris Searcy this offseason. And while the Bills, like any other NFL team, could stand to improve its depth in the defensive backfield, the Bills have enough of it already to weed out the possibility of any rookie walking into a lot of playing time in 2015.
Is there an instant contributor?
It is exceedingly unlikely. They are four deep at cornerback, with Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin projected as starters, Nickell Robey handling the tricky nickel spot, and Corey Graham serving as a heady utility infielder, playing multiple positions with ease. Aaron Williams returns for his third season at safety, and third-year pro Duke Williams - a player that Buffalo's coaching staff is very high on - will replace Searcy in the lineup after a strong 2014 performance in a coverage-based role.
There will, of course, be opportunities to fill in while starters are injured - the Bills' current group of starters seems to always miss a handful of games per season - but that only makes depth a priority. The Bills are already well-stocked with contributors here.
Where does a project fit in?
Any prospect the Bills bring in this weekend will have an easier time making waves at safety than they will at cornerback. That's because, even beyond their top four corners, the Bills already have Ron Brooks - a key special teams contributor - and second-year pro Ross Cockrell, a fourth-round pick out of Duke a year ago, in reserve. Today, Cockrell fills the role of the Bills' top developmental player in the secondary, and he has the best chance at pushing the top six for a role somewhere.
Safety is a different situation, however, even if local and national reporters alike continue to ignore what Duke Williams brought to the table last season. Beyond the projected starters, the team has nothing more than a pool of highly unproven projects waiting in reserve - a group highlighted by Bacarri Rambo, Internet sensation following his two-pick game against Green Bay, as well as Jonathan Meeks, Kenny Ladler, and Deon Broomfield. These are all young veterans who have proven very little, which likely explains why the Bills were speaking with veteran Dawan Landry a few weeks back. Depth is a far more pressing concern at safety.
Is it a need in 2015? 2016?
Gilmore is now under contract for two more years (through the 2016 season), so his eventual free agency is not as big a concern as it otherwise could have been. McKelvin and Graham, however, are going to start the 2015 season at age 30, and with only Cockrell in the developmental pipeline, adding another project cornerback might be a wise move. But that's a down-the-line move; it's more important for the Bills to address their safety depth for the 2015 season, one way or another. In what is widely regarded as a weak safety class, however, the Bills might not end up with the type of reliable depth that they need by using an early draft pick there.