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Bills Free Agents 2013: Major Decisions Looming At Cornerback

The Buffalo Bills have one certainty at cornerback: Stephon Gilmore is their top cover man. A minimum of three major questions (plus eight players) lie beyond him on the depth chart.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

We knew going into the 2012 season that the Buffalo Bills were going to be exceedingly young and inexperienced at the cornerback position. As the year wore on and veterans were either demoted or placed on Injured Reserve (again), the group only got younger. By the time the season ended, the Bills had two 22-year-olds and two 24-year-olds handling their cornerback duties.

Things might not change much in 2013, either. The two projected starters (for now) will turn 23 this calendar year. The rest of the depth is young. The two players in danger of leaving the roster - Terrence McGee (32) and Leodis McKelvin (27) - are the only two players out of eight that are older than 25 at the moment. If additions are made to the position, they could very well end up making the group even younger.

That said, we can't claim that the team's best cornerback lacks experience. Beyond Stephon Gilmore, however, the team has more questions than answers.

Stephon Gilmore

  • Age: 22 (23 in September 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make a fully guaranteed $939,280 base salary in 2013.

No Bills defender got more field action last year than Gilmore, whose 1,056 snaps (over 97 percent of all defensive snaps) edged out players like Jairus Byrd, Nick Barnett and Mario Williams for the top spot. That shows you the degree of responsibility that the Bills placed on the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft; the team really does consider him a lock-down corner in the making.

Gilmore was fairly consistent as a rookie despite drawing No. 1 receivers most of the season. He had his ups and downs (Gilmore was flagged early and often throughout the season for pass interference and holding penalties, something he'll obviously need to clean up moving forward), and he only ultimately picked off one pass (though he did defend 16 in the air and force two fumbles), but all in all Gilmore had a rock solid debut campaign.

Gilmore has everything you look for physically in a cornerback, and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. He should only get better as he moves forward into his second pro season as the Bills' top cornerback.

Aaron Williams

  • Age: 22 (23 in April 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $853,104 in base salary in 2013.

Fans crow about Williams' lackluster play throughout his first two pro seasons. Before we get to that, though, there's a bigger concern with the 2011 second-round pick: durability. Williams has already missed 12 games in two professional seasons; it's therefore difficult to consider him a reliable commodity before we even discuss his on-field performance.

It's also worth considering his durability when discussing his play - not as an excuse-maker, but as a factor in his development. Regardless of the level importance you place on his injury history, Williams has struggled on the field. Before he got hurt last season, he likely would have lost his starting job had it not been for extenuating circumstances at the position; heading into Week 7, Williams had already given up five touchdowns on the season, and he didn't improve much after returning from his knee injury.

There's no getting around the fact that Williams has been a big disappointment thus far. Still, he's not yet 23 years old, and the same upside that made him a second-round pick remains. He needs to stay healthy first; then, if he continues to struggle at corner, there are other options the team can pursue.

Justin Rogers

  • Age: 25
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.

Rogers, a 2011 seventh-round pick out of Richmond, has spent his first two seasons playing various sub-package roles (chiefly nickel back, sometimes dime back when the group is healthier). He showed brief glimpses of competence in that role as a rookie, but like the rest of the defense struggled mightily for stretches in 2012. Rogers has return ability and has a good deal of experience, but his upside appears to be limited to that of a sub-package player with return man potential. (Perhaps that makes him an ideal in-house replacement for the next name on our list.)

Leodis McKelvin

  • Age: 27 (28 in September 2013)
  • Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent

The "other" former first-round pick on this list, McKelvin - drafted No. 11 overall in 2008 - is an impending unrestricted free agent. He is one of the league's best punt returners (if not just the best), averaging 18.9 yards per return and scoring three touchdowns over the last two seasons.

This isn't a special teams review, however; it's a cornerback review, and as McKelvin wants to be considered a starting-caliber corner as he hits the open market, it's only fair to point out that McKelvin is not a starting-caliber corner. We can't count on one hand the number of times he was promoted then subsequently demoted over the last five seasons; on average, McKelvin has been an experienced depth player with top-flight athleticism and mind-numbingly terrible stretches of play in recent seasons. Buffalo would do well to keep McKelvin purely for his return ability, but that might not be enough of a reason for McKelvin to stay.

Ron Brooks

  • Age: 24 (25 in October 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Right now, Brooks - last year's fourth-round draft pick out of LSU - is the "buzz" player for Bills fans at cornerback. He's a player that a large number of people would like to see handed a starting role (or at least a crack at a starting role) despite the fact that he's only really played half of one season. Brooks spent the first chunk of the 2012 season on IR with a foot injury, then acquitted himself fairly well in a tight spot when he was asked to start almost immediately upon his return to the lineup. He ended the season as a sub-package corner, and while he has the athletic chops to eventually push for a starting job, expecting him to do it right away - regardless of what's in front of him - seems like a stretch.

Terrence McGee

  • Age: 32 (33 in October 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Owed a $350,000 roster bonus at the start of the new league year. Scheduled to make $1.75 million in base salary in 2013.

We all know what McGee once was: a rock solid starting cornerback and an elite kick returner. He hasn't been that player for years; now, he's a perpetually banged-up, aging veteran with an unseemly roster bonus looming in March, right before free agency starts. It seems incredibly unlikely that the Bills will be willing to pay that roster bonus, plus a significant salary, for a player long in decline that can't be relied on to take the field on a per-week basis.

I expect McGee to be released, and I imagine most fans are on board with that line of thought. It wouldn't be terribly surprising, either, if McGee has played his last snap in the NFL. Then again, after all of this time as a shell of his former self, it wouldn't be too surprising if he somehow made it to training camp this summer, either.

Crezdon Butler

  • Age: 25 (26 in May 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.

A former fifth-round draft pick (2010) out of Clemson by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Butler followed the Steeler pipeline first to Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, then to Doug Whaley in Buffalo over the last two years. He'll be 26 when training camp begins, and while the Bills' front office is high on him athletically, it'd be unfair to expect Butler to make significant waves in the race for playing time next year. Still, he's a name to keep an eye on for the back end of the 53-man roster.

T.J. Heath

  • Age: 25 (26 in September 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.

Another young, long and lanky (6'0", 188 pounds) prospect, Heath spent a good chunk of the year on the practice squad before getting called up late for additional cornerback depth. He, too, will be given a crack at the 53-man roster next summer, and offers some athletic upside.

Free agency outlook: With McGee now an afterthought (and potentially - or probably - released), Buffalo's top four corners could all be age 25 or younger when the 2013 season begins if the team doesn't re-sign McKelvin. Even if they do re-sign McKelvin, four of their top five corners will be age 25 or under, they'll likely still have two 23-year-old starters, and McKelvin's value will still be as a quality reserve and elite return man. It seems at this point that more fans would like to see McKelvin brought back than not, but that's far from a lock - particularly if another team pays McKelvin like a starter once he hits the free agent market.

2013 NFL Draft outlook: Nix has said that he'd like to take a cornerback in every draft. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine worked with Rex Ryan for a decade, who operates under the assumption that cornerbacks (and pass rushers) must be collected in large quantities. It's a very safe bet that the Bills will draft at least one cornerback in this draft, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if they do it with really early picks (perhaps even the first-rounder).

Discussion topics: As always, we have two discussion starters for our comments section. As a bonus for such an intriguing position, we've added a third bullet point, as well.

  • Knowing that Gilmore and Williams are the same age with roughly the same amount of playing experience, is the disparity between the way the two players are perceived by fans (Gilmore very well, Williams not well at all) fair?
  • Keeping in mind that McKelvin is not a quality starter and an elite return man, does his combined skill set make him worth re-signing at a starter's salary?
  • If both McGee and McKelvin depart, how much of a priority should the team place on acquiring a veteran corner in free agency? Or should they just roll with the young guys?