Heading into the 2013 season, one of the biggest areas for concern was how the cornerbacks would play in Mike Pettine’s system, and if they would be as big of a weakness as some had speculated. Without Stephon Gilmore due to an injury, the pass defense was tested quite a bit leading to some success for opponents.
A healthy and improved Leodis McKelvin helped the team, as did the removal of Justin Rogers from the lineup. Once Gilmore came back and shed the club on his hand, the Bills pass defense improved.
In 2014, though, it’s a new scheme with a new defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz. With a few new additions, the cornerback group has an interesting summer in line for one player that was a former fourth-round draft pick of the team.
The Starters (2) Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin
- Barring an injury, these will be the two starting cornerbacks heading into the season. Gilmore has as much promise as any person on the team following an outstanding training camp in 2013, while McKelvin is coming off his best season in the NFL. The starters are plagued by two very legitimate questions. First, will Gilmore regain the form he had last year at St. John Fisher College? He was on the cusp of playing at a level near the top of the position before his injury against Washington in the preseason. Second, was 2013 a fluke for McKelvin? It’s a new defense that will put more pressure on the cornerbacks to cover their assignments longer, which was not a recipe for success during his first five years in the league. He’s done quite well to put all the bad beats from the past in the rearview mirror thanks in part to the teaching of Donnie Henderson, but the signing of Corey Graham could mean that they’re not going to settle for consistent lapses just because there isn’t anyone else.
The Depth (3) Corey Graham, Nickell Robey, Ross Cockrell
- Graham’s role isn’t entirely defined just yet, and there may not be any definition when we get to the start of the year, either. At this point, Graham looks to be a matchup-based option that puts him in front of the proper personnel. If McKelvin struggles, he can go in and has the ability to start on the outside — he showed as much in Baltimore. For now, he’ll be in the jack-of-all-trades mold. Robey is the team’s best option at nickel corner after a very strong rookie season. It would be foolish to remove him from the roster. Cockrell is the team’s fourth-round selection, and despite a slow spring, it would be doubtful that he’s in jeopardy of making the roster.
The Bubble (3) Ron Brooks, Brandon Smith, Mario Butler
- Once seen as a promising talent by the last coaching staff, now Brooks is in a fight to keep his job. With so many players ahead of him on the depth chart you have to wonder if the light will ever go on for him, or if the Bills will wait long enough for it to happen. If the Bills only keep five cornerbacks, he likely won’t have a chance. If they elect to keep six or an injury happens, then he has to beat out both Smith and Butler. Smith (6-foot-1, 205-pounds) is the new age cornerback that has the size teams covet. A former college wide receiver, Smith’s size continues to make teams want to give him chances to convert to the defensive side of the ball. Butler makes “the bubble” section barely, but his play during spring practices was impressive.
The Longshots (2) Michael Carter, Darius Robinson
- Carter is getting his first chance with the team and the NFL, over a year removed from leaving the University of Minnesota. Robinson, an undrafted free agent, is undersized (5-foot-10, 175-pounds) and missed most of the spring practices due to an injury suffered during one of the early sessions. Both would need very strong camps just to get on the roster bubble.