Now that the dust of the 2011 Draft has settled, it’s time to analyze the current state of Buffalo’s roster. We’ll be taking a look at one position at a time. Today: Cornerback. (Previous editions: QB, RB, FB, WR, TE, OT,G/C, DL, OLB, ILB, ST)
Buffalo’s outlook at cornerback depends greatly one decision the Bills front office will have to make – how much is the team willing to spend to make sure Drayton Florence returns to the Bills? Florence had a very strong year in 2010 and will command decent money on the free agent market. Complicating the issue is that two other “big name” Bills defensive starters – linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner – are also free agents. Who will be Buffalo’s biggest re-signing priority? If the Bills can’t bring back Florence (or even if they can), is there enough depth at corner to handle the talented wide receivers of the AFC East?
With or without Florence, the battle at training camp for the starting cornerback positions should be very intriguing. Can Terrence McGee bounce back from injury? Will former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin – armed with a new uniform number – finally reach his potential? Does rookie Aaron Williams have a chance to beat out the veterans for a starting spot?
Players Under Contract (5): Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, Reggie Corner, Aaron Williams, Justin Rogers
Possibly Departing Free Agents (2): Drayton Florence, Ashton Youboty
1) Terrence McGee
2010: 9 games, 18 tackles (1 for loss)
The former fourth-round pick has had a nice career in Buffalo, stringing together several productive yearsearly in his tenure before injuries derailed his 2009 and 2010 seasons. When healthy, he’s a good cover corner and a playmaker – as his 17 career INTs and 7 total touchdowns attest. He really struggled last season, however. A back injury gave him trouble all year, and even when he was able to play he clearly wasn’t himself.
You just have to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Even if we give him a mulligan for last season, he’ll be 31 in October and has managed just one INT in 20 games over the past two seasons. Let’s hope the time off has given him the time to heal, and he’ll be ready to go whenever the lockout ends. Even if he’s healthy, though, he’ll have to battle for playing time with McKelvin, Williams, and possibly Florence. McGee entering the year as the dime back isn’t out of the question if he’s lost a step or two.
2) Leodis McKelvin
2010: 16 games, 62 tackles, 2 INT; 14 kick returns, 18.9-yard return average; 6 punt returns, 4.0-yard return average
Buffalo’s 2008 first-round draft selection has had something of a rocky tenure with the Bills.There’s been flashes of greatness, particularly as a kick returner (he was named to the All-Pro team as a rookie in that role. He has all the skills to be a great cover corner - superior athleticism, speed, and the ability to change direction quickly.
For whatever reason, all that talent hasn’t quite made McKelvin a top-flight cornerback yet. He seems to get beat a little too frequently, and part of the reason is a lack of willingness to play all that physically. McKelvin will often give his man a big cushion and try to make up the distance with his athleticism. It’s not always all that effective. Other times, he’ll just get torched deep, or burned on a double move, or simply get lost in coverage. It’s baffling.
This coulda make-or-break year for McKelvin in a Bills uniform. He’s got a battle ahead of him to earn a starting spot out of camp – a battle in which he’ll be the favorite. If he fails, he might not see the final year of his five-year rookie contract.
3) Reggie Corner
2010: 16 games, 25 tackles, 1 sack
Corner was drafted by the Bills in the fourth round in 2008 out of Akron and has held on to a roster spot ever since. He’s mostly served as a nickel or dime back, occasionally being to spot starter as injuries have mounted in the secondary. Corner takes a lot of grief from many Bills fans, as it does seem like he gets beat quite often. He’s also small and not effective at all against the run.
I’m not quite as hard on him, as Corner is what he is: an undersized but athletic guy who is fine in his backup/dime back role. He can blitz off the corner and cover in the slot decently. If the Bills could ever get any pass rush, he wouldn’t get exposed nearly as often.
That said, if he wants his NFL career to continue he needs a big year in 2011. He wasn’t used as frequently last season as he was in 2009, and the Bills drafted two cornerbacks hungry for playing time. To add to the pressure, Corner is in the last season of his rookie contract. He’ll probably make the roster – especially if Florence is not re-signed – but he’ll need a productive season to get another contract from Buffalo in 2012.
4) Aaron Williams
2010: University of Texas
I’m sure many fans weren’t too thrilled to see the Bills spend yet another high draft pick on a defensive back, but there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Williams. For one thing, if you like physical football, you’ll like Williams. The man can straight-up hit, and he’ll be a huge asset against the run. His cover skills are pretty decent as well, and you can bet he’ll find his way onto the field quite often in 2011, if only on special teams.
The question with Williams in his rookie season will be in finding a role for him. Can he beat out McGee, McKelvin, and (possibly) Florence for a starting role? If not, where does he land? Can he cover well enough in the slot to serve as nickelback? Would the Bills really keep their second round pick primarily on special teams? Williams’s playing time will be interesting to track in his rookie year.
5) Justin Rogers
2010: University of Richmond
The team’s seventh-round draft choice, Rogers has something of a daunting task ahead of him to earn playing time (or even a roster spot) in 2011. It’s not that Rogers can’t play – he was very successful at Richmond, with 12 interceptions and five touchdowns in his career. The problem for Rogers will be that there’s a lot of talent and experience in front of him, especially if Florence comes back. How many corners can the Bills keep?
Despite that issue, don’t count out Rogers. He’s not terribly imposing (5-11, 180 pounds), but he has excellent speed and good cover skills. He doesn’t have top-flight athleticism, however, and the jump from FCS school Richmond to the NFL is a big one. To earn a spot on the roster, he’ll probably need to beat out Reggie Corner. And that’s not impossible. In any case, a practice squad position could absolutely be in his future.
Possibly Departing Free Agents:
2010: 16 games, 58 tackles, 3 INT (1 returned for TD), 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery (returned for TD)
In his eighth year out of Tuskegee, Florence turned in what might have been his finest NFL season in 2010. He was solid-to-excellent in coverage all year and scored his first two career touchdowns. Unfortunately for Buffalo, there’s no doubt other teams noticed his production, and Florence will be a free agent when the lockout ends. Can the Bills afford to keep him? Bills GM Buddy Nix claims Buffalo wants to bring him back, and we can only hope he succeeds.
2) Ashton Youboty
2010: 13 games, 2 tackles
The Bills had high hopes for Youboty when they drafted him in the third round in 2006. Sadly, it has just never panned out in Buffalo for this guy. He’s battled constant injuries, and he hasn’t been able to win much playing time on the rare occasions he’s been healthy. His contract is up, and there’s virtually zero chance Buffalo brings him back. I wish him better luck in the future.
So, there you have it. Buffalo actually has some depth here, particularly is Florence is back as a Bill. The battle for playing time should be one to watch, especially if Williams has a strong camp.