Leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, it seems that the majority of the Buffalo Bills fan base have their mind set on selecting either a front seven defender or a wide receiver with the team’s No. 19 overall pick in the draft. I share that sentiment, but when I went to update the BuildingTheHerd salary cap database along with the team’s depth chart, I saw an extreme lack of depth in an area that could potentially wind up being an early wildcard draft selection that would be a big head-scratcher to most fans.
Buffalo Bills Cornerback Situation
Stephon Gilmore is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2016 season, as the Bills picked up his fifth-year option that will pay him $11.78 million this year. His development into an upper-echelon cornerback continued throughout his 2015 campaign, allowing 50 receptions on 92 targets, a 54.3 completion percentage. His 18 pass breakups rank seven at his position.
The Bills struck gold last season when they were able to select cornerback Ronald Darby out of Florida State in the second round. At the time, I wasn’t a fan of the pick. Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham played at a high level in 2014. I thought there were more pressing needs on the roster, and I was disappointed.
But, after a handful of ugly preseason contests, Ronald Darby showed up Week 1 ready to play. He finished the year allowing 58 receptions on 105 targets (5th-most among cornerbacks), allowing just 54.3% of passes to be completed on him, which ranked 14th of 73 qualifying players.
The Bills extended the contract of nickel cornerback Nickell Robey for two more years at a $4.1 million price tag, keeping him with the team through the 2017 season. After experiencing great success under previous defensive coordinators—most notable Mike Pettine—his play dropped in 2015. In 2015, Robey allowed 42 catches to be caught on him in on 62 targets.
When the team entered the 2016 NFL Free Agency period, they were extremely tight against the salary cap and released Mario Williams (Miami Dolphins), Leodis McKelvin (Philadelphia Eagles), Kraig Urbik (Miami Dolphins).
Their main priority was to retain left tackle Cordy Glenn, which they did so via the franchise tag, along with re-signing left guard Richie Incognito to a three-year, $15 million contract.
They tagged restricted free agent offensive tackle Jordan Mills, defensive lineman Corbin Bryant and wide receiver Chris Hogan, who was subsequently signed by the New England Patriots.
Now, behind Stephon Gilmore, Ronald Darby and Nickell Robey, the Buffalo Bills are very thin at the cornerback position. Mario Butler looks to be the first-man up in case of a potential injury, as the 27-year old played 130 snaps last year, seeing extensive time in the home opener against the Colts in which he held Andrew Luck to just one completion for 16 yards on five targets, while breaking up two passes. He started the final two games of the year against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets, allowing five catches on 10 targets for 71 yards and a touchdown, while breaking up two more passes.
They signed Javier Arenas, a former second round pick out of Alabama that started just 12 games, appearing in 69 since his 2010 selection. Arenas missed the 2015 season and played just 161 defensive snaps in the previous two seasons combined. As a nickel cornerback, Arenas recorded 158 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions and broke up 23 passes in his career, allowing 127 receptions on 192 targets—a 66.1 completion percentage—for 1,396 yards (11.0 yards-per-completion) with another 528 yards-after-the-catch.
He surrendered seven touchdowns and opposing passers posted a 95.3 passer rating when targeting him. His value will likely come on special teams, as the former Crimson Tide National Champion returned 106 punts for 1,035 yards, a 9.8 yards-per-return average and another 1,541 yards on 73 kick returns, a 21.7 average.
Behind those two, the Bills’ cornerback depth chart is rounded out with misfits like Bud Noel and Sammy Seamster.
The Bills’ had one of the worst safety situations in the National Football League last season. Aaron Williams, a veteran leader that’s the team’s most talented safety, suffered a season ending injury against the New England Patriots and without his ability to quickly and effectively communicate coverages and checks with his teammates, things spiraled out of control quickly.
The Bills had five different starting combinations at the safety position last year, and the constant change resulted in a lot of blown coverages, misunderstandings of assignments and ultimately poor play. Of the 30 passing touchdowns Buffalo’s defense allowed last season, ProFootballFocus charged 14 of them to safeties.
Corey Graham transitioned from cornerback to safety and had a solid, yet inconsistent year. He led all safeties in tackles with 127, missing just three—a pretty impressive ratio—while adding a sack, two interceptions and four pass breakups. ProFootballFocus graded him as the No. 25 overall safety in the league out of 62 qualifying players and ranked No. 7 against the run, where his 43 tackles ranked fifth among his peers. Graham struggled in pass coverage, being targeted 48 times—the ninth most at his position—allowing 35 catches for 547 yards and a 72.9 completion percentage. His 15.6 yards per catch allowed was the ninth highest among safeties and his 132.6 passer rating against as third worst.
Duke Williams looked like he was ready to take the next step in his development leading into last season, but he looked totally lost whenever he was on the field and his teammates weren’t happy about it. Against the Patriots early in the season, the Bills were backed against their endzone. New England motioned a fullback and tight end from the formation out to the line of scrimmage.
Nigel Bradham and Stephon Gilmore screamed at Williams, trying to let him know his assignment, but it was too late.
Tom Brady got the ball off and threw an easy pass to a wide open Rob Gronkowski. After the score, Bradham continued to chew him out and Rex Ryan called him out publicly during a press conference.
Duke Williams put on notice after some miscommunication on Gronk TD. Gilmore/Bradham were screaming at him pic.twitter.com/74pMN65WhU
— Rob Quinn (@RQUINN619) September 21, 2015
After that game, Bacarri Rambo saw more action and played at a solid level. However, the Bills didn’t tender him as a restricted free agent, opting to bring in Robert Blanton as a cheaper option. There’s also Jonathan Meeks, who’s played 17 defensive snaps since being selected in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Clemson. So..we all know his fate.
Rex Ryan’s defenses are known for pressuring and confusing opposing offenses, but that’s only been possible when he’s had stellar defensive backs at his disposal. Having cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis, Chris McCalister, Samari Rolle, Antonio Cromartie, and now Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby allow Rex to play man coverage, which in turn allows him to be creative with how he uses his safeties.
Rex’s safeties have typically fit the same physical and athletic profile—big, physical enforcers that play in the box to provide run support. With the exception of the 5’8” 190-pound Jim Leonhard, Rex Ryan’s safeties have averaged 6’2” and 216.75 pounds, which is pretty big.
After a rude awakening in his first year as the Bills’ head coach in which multiple players publicly questioned his scheme, you can bet that Rex Ryan will want to stick to what’s worked so well for him in the past.
It’s not a coincidence that the Jets used seven draft picks on defensive backs in Ryan’s six years with the team, and quite frankly, the way the Bills have been doing things lately, nothing would come as much of a surprise to me at this point, and that includes them selecting a defensive back in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Bills certainly need help at linebacker and the defensive line, along with depth at the edge rusher and wide receiver positions, but fortunately, those are the few positions of strength In this year’s draft. The cornerback and safety groups are top heavy, and the dropoff in talent from a player taken in the second round to one taken in the fourth will be considerably larger than the dropoff at other positions.
It’s not an ideal pick, after the team used a 1st rounder in 2012 to select Gilmore and a 2nd last year on Darby, but if one of those two were to go down with an injury, the Bills don’t have anybody even close to their talent level to fill in capably.
Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Ohio State’s Eli Apple or Houston’s William Jackson make sense as first-round options, while Miami’s Artie Burns, Baylor’s Xavien Howard and Mississippi State’s Will Redmond make sense as second round cornerback options.
If Rex looks to bolster his group of safeties, Ohio State’s Vonn Bell, West Virginia’s Karl Joseph, Florida’s Keanu Neal, Clemson’s T.J. Green and LSU’s Jalen Mills would fit nicely.
Obviously this isn’t an idea that will go over well with many Bills fans, but when you step back and look at just how bad things can get with an injury to a key player, the idea of Buffalo selecting another cornerback high in the draft doesn’t seem so out of this world anymore.