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Buffalo Bills have potentially elite CB duo in Stephon Gilmore, Ronald Darby

The Buffalo Bills are expected to make some personnel tweaks to their defense this offseason, but one area that's in very good shape is at cornerback, where the Bills are young and highly talented.

When the Buffalo Bills hired Rex Ryan as their head coach last January, fans and experts alike knew that his defensive scheme would put a lot of pressure on the team's cornerbacks. A young, mostly-unproven group would be relied upon to play a lot of man-to-man defense and excel, and while there was talent on hand, there was some inherent risk to handing young players that amount of responsibility.

Buffalo's cornerbacks stepped up to the challenge in a big way. Their starting duo of Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby should be mentioned as one of the best young combinations in the NFL, their slot corner still offers upside and unique traits, and they even have an intriguing depth option with some big-play ability, as well. In fact, Buffalo's biggest concerns at cornerback should be how to save money now, so that they can lock up their good, young corners long-term.

Our State of the Bills Roster series plunges on today with a look at the cornerback position, one of the bright spots on a pretty solid roster. As always, financial information in this article comes from the fine folks at

Stephon Gilmore

  • Age: 25 (26 on 9/19/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $2.04M
  • 2016 cap charge: $11.08M
  • Playing time: 795 snaps in 12 games active (72.9% of total)
  • Stats: 36 tackles (36 solo), 3 INT, 18 defended passes

Even though Gilmore missed the final four games with a shoulder injury that required surgery, the 2015 season was his best since entering the league as a Top 10 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He took well to the defense, playing a physical, aggressive brand of football en route to a career-high 18 pass break-ups; it's fair to wonder if Gilmore might have reached his considerable potential already had he not missed 11 games in the last three seasons. Regardless, Gilmore is firmly entrenched as a high-quality starting cornerback that still offers upside thanks to his combination of length, fluidity, and smarts, and he will be paid to reflect that sooner rather than later. Buffalo should make re-signing Gilmore a priority later this spring.

Ronald Darby

  • Age: 22
  • 2015 earnings: $2.02M
  • 2016 cap charge: $1.04M ($742K added to cap if cut)
  • Playing time: 915 snaps in 15 games active (83.9% of total)
  • Stats: 68 tackles (61 solo), 2 INT, 21 defended passes

For the first two and a half months of his inaugural NFL season, Darby was the best rookie defender in the league, quickly establishing himself as a front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He slowed down later in the year, allowing Kansas City's Marcus Peters to surpass him for that honor, but the Bills have every reason to be very bullish about their 2015 second-round pick out of Florida State. We knew coming in that Darby was highly athletic, but his aggressive, physical, sticky brand of coverage was an outstanding fit in Ryan's defense. He gave up a few too many big plays, something he'll have to iron out as he goes into his second pro season, but in combination with Gilmore, the Bills have two corners that can compete with a high percentage of the league's go-to receivers.

Nickell Robey

  • Age: 24
  • 2015 earnings: $1.95M
  • 2016 cap charge: $1.61M
  • Playing time: 675 snaps in 16 games active (61.9% of total)
  • Stats: 46 tackles (39 solo), 1 sack, 4 defended passes

The Bills re-signed their slot corner to a two-year contract extension prior to the start of the 2015 regular season, so he'll return in that role in 2016. Despite his size limitations, Robey is smart, tough, and extremely quick, which makes him an asset against some of the shiftier slot receivers the Bills face. But 2015 was a down year compared to his first two seasons in the NFL, particularly in coverage, and if the Bills' defensive coaches aren't going to utilize his abilities as a blitzer or in short zones, they're going to either have to live with his limitations in man coverage, or think about grooming a replacement with more size. For now, however, Robey still offers some upside, and if he returns to his 2013 and 2014 form, Buffalo will be in pretty good shape.

Leodis McKelvin

  • Age: 30 (31 on 9/1/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $3.9M
  • 2016 cap charge: $4.9M ($3.9M savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 388 snaps in 9 games active (35.6% of total)
  • Stats: 32 tackles (25 solo), 2 INT, 9 defended passes, 2 FF, 1 FR

McKelvin is willing to take a pay cut and switch positions to stay with the Bills; time will tell if that's enough for the team to surpass a $3.9 million cap savings to cut him. Buffalo won't have much use for him at cornerback with Gilmore, Darby, and Robey ready to re-assume their roles (and eat up the lion's share of snaps), and they can groom younger, cheaper depth behind them. 2015 was a weird year for McKelvin - when he returned from an ankle setback, he was forced to play safety, then forced to switch back to cornerback after injuries set in, where he struggled - but he ended up making more big plays than even the bigger names on this list. But McKelvin's willingness to alter his contract and move to safety suggest that he knows the score: he'll either adapt to the situation, or he'll seek employment elsewhere. Whether or not the Bills consider McKelvin part of their plans at safety remains to be seen.

Mario Butler

  • Age: 27 (28 on 10/20/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $585K
  • 2016 cap charge: $600K ($600K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 128 snaps in 13 games active (11.7% of total)
  • Stats: 9 tackles (7 solo), 5 defended passes

One of the reasons that McKelvin will be so easily dispensable (or he'll take a pay cut and move to safety) is because of the presence of Butler. He toiled on injury lists, a complete afterthought to the fan base, for two years, but then quickly impressed his coaches and earned a roster spot last summer. Teams picked on him when he was pressed into action, and he gave up some big plays, but he also showed that he has a nose for the football, culminating with this huge play in the season finale. The Bills probably shouldn't hand him the No. 4 corner role heading into 2016, but they also wasted no time re-signing Butler so that he could compete for that job again next season. He has earned that look.

Sammy Seamster
  • Age: 24 (25 on 2/5/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $30K
  • 2016 cap charge: $450K ($450K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 0 snaps in 1 game active
Merrill Noel
  • Age: 24 (25 on 9/10/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $26K
  • 2016 cap charge: $450K ($450K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 0 snaps in 1 game active
Cam Thomas
  • Age: 24 (25 on 5/5/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $394K
  • 2016 cap charge: $525K ($1K added to cap if cut)
  • Playing time: Spent entire 2015 season on Reserve/PUP

Seamster and Noel were late-season call-ups from the practice squad as injuries depleted depth; Noel spent the entire year with the Bills on the practice squad, while Seamster was a mid-year import. Thomas, a 2015 undrafted rookie who has good size, spent the entire year on Reserve/PUP with an unknown issue that cropped up in training camp.

Free agents

Ron Brooks
  • Age: 27 (28 on 10/16/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $660K
  • 2016 cap charge: Unrestricted Free Agent
  • Playing time: 54 snaps in 13 games active (4.9% of total)
  • Stats: 12 tackles (11 solo), 2 defended passes

Primarily a special teams player in his four-year career with the Bills, the 2012 fourth-round pick out of LSU has been routinely bypassed by other corners on Buffalo's depth chart in that time frame. Unless the Bills value his special teams contributions more than we know, it's looking like he's done in Buffalo, given that the team does not really value him as an option on defense.

Offseason outlook

Depth is always a concern at cornerback, but the Bills are probably happy with the notion of giving their major playing-time roles to Gilmore, Darby, and Robey next season. They should look to bolster their depth with young, cheap acquisitions, and then their big decisions will be whether or not to shift McKelvin to safety or take that nearly $4 million in cap savings, and how much they should set aside to lock Gilmore up long-term. For next season, however, the Bills look like they're in pretty good shape here.