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Buffalo Bills 2016 X-factors: Corey Graham

Though often overlooked, Corey Graham will be a crucial piece to the Bills defensive turnaround in 2016.

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Veteran safety Corey Graham, entering his third season with the Buffalo Bills, has been a key member of the defense the past two years and will be an integral piece in 2016.

He turns 31 a week before training camp begins, but the Buffalo native’s complete skill set and intelligence on the field appeals to Rex Ryan’s adoration of versatility, and his complex defense.

Graham was the classic “second-wave / high-value” free-signee in 2014, and he thrived with the Bills that season at cornerback and safety when needed, playing the ball in the air as well as any pro cornerback. He snagged two interceptions and defended 15 passes.

Last season, Graham’s age showed, as he was beaten downfield on a handful of occasions. However, as Buffalo’s injury list expanded into November, Ryan deployed him almost exclusively as a hybrid linebacker — yes, Ryan can play to his defenders’ strengths — and the safety flourished closer to the line of scrimmage where his lack of long speed was masked and his tackling technique and aggression were accentuated.

In fact, Pro Football Focus gave Graham the “Best Tackler” label for his performance in 2015, writing: “Graham had only three missed tackles on 104 attempts, one every 35.7 attempts. It was the best rate among linebackers and safeties.”

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

For as well as the Bills’ cornerbacks played in 2015, the safety group was mediocre at best.

Losing Aaron Williams in Week 2 was probably the most underrated injury of the year and the reinforcements behind him, unsurprisingly, were not game-changers. Their failure to quickly learn Ryan’s scheme and communicate on the fly contributed to some ugly results in critical, late-season contests. (See: Washington Redskins game)

Williams could have made this list too, as he’ll be the primary deep safety... but Graham’s standing as the secondary’s elder statesman, the backend’s utility man and his presence next to a duo of young, more downhill-than-coverage linebackers makes him an easy x-factor choice.

For as much as the NFL is a passing league now, if your defense can’t stop the run... forget about it.

Buffalo’s precipitous drop in sacks from 2014 to 2015 was the headliner for the defensive woes a season ago, but its defense allowed 4.4 yards per carry, tied for the 8th-worst in football.

Last year, Graham led Buffalo by a wide margin with 91 tackles.

His durability is another reason why he’s a vital facet to the Bills defense, especially with Williams returning from a serious neck injury.

As a rookie for the Bears in 2007, the Turner-Carroll graduate appeared in 13 games. Since then, Graham has played in 128 consecutive outings — that’s eight-straight full seasons.

In a recent story by Ty Dunne of The Buffalo News, Graham didn’t shy away from a leadership role and was quoted saying “we want to get back to the level where we’re elite.”

Graham has never been a household name superstar, he’s not as fast as he once was, and the majority of attention will be fixated how well Buffalo rushes the passer this year. But even with newcomers at the safety position, most namely former Minnesota Vikings starter Robert Blanton, the soon-to-be 31-year-old vet will be an essential blue-collar technician for the Bills in 2016.