With the 2012 Buffalo Bills’ season over, Queen City Sports will be performing a comprehensive review of all of the positions on the team. These evaluations will include key stats, grades, and thoughts on how players performed and the outlook of the position going into 2013. The third installment will be reviewing the cornerback position.
The Bills selected a cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, out of South Carolina with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, and while he performed admirably, there was a revolving door at the opposite cornerback position, with Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams, and Ron Brooks all seeing starts throughout the year. In an era where the cornerback position is growing to be ever-so-important in terms of the rising rate of passing offenses, the Bills need to do everything they can to field a productive unit there.
The Bills used a fourth round pick in the 2012 draft on Ron Brooks, a cornerback out of Louisiana State. Brooks was coming out of LSU very raw, as he was sitting behind superstar defensive backs Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne, and Tyrann Matheiu on the Tigers’ depth chart. While a training camp injury landed him on the “to return” injured reserve prior to the season, Brooks began seeing playing time midway through the 2012 season. The lack of time on the field proved to be detrimental, as Brooks recorded 19 tackles and defended four passes in the nine games he appeared in. While appearing in just 162 snaps, he was one of the most targeted defensive backs in the National Football League, as quarterbacks passed in his direction once every 4.3 snaps he was on the field. In those 26 targets, he allowed three touchdowns, and quarterbacks had a 105.8 passer rating in his direction.
Brooks should see a significant upgrade in his play during the 2013 season, as he will have had a full training camp and preseason to hone his skills. While the stats don’t look great for the 24-year old, he showed a nice combination of speed and solid technique that make him viable as a nice option at nickel cornerback for the future.
The Bills’ first round draft pick was given the very difficult task of covering opposing teams’ No.1 wide receiver throughout the year. He started in every game, and was often left alone in man coverage, something rookies are very rarely asked to do. He was targeted 87 times, and played 1,082 snaps, allowing just 736 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the year. Gilmore’s physical style of play resulted in being penalized 13 times this year, the most of any defensive back in the league. However, he was a very good, all around cornerback, recording 61 tackles and defending 16 passes, while making one interception and forcing three fumbles.
Gilmore looks like a franchise player, grading out as the second highest ranked rookie cornerback behind the Green Bay Packers’ Casey Hayward in coverage skills, and 16th in the National Football League, according to ProFootballFocus. Gilmore had his bumps and bruises in his rookie year, but he gained invaluable experience at the position, and didn’t seem fazed when he was beat for a score, or flagged for pass interference, which is a great trait for defensive backs to have.
Terrence McGee took a rather large pay-cut prior to the 2012 season, saving the team over $5 million in cap money through 2013. He was nagged with injuries for yet another season, as the 32-year old veteran played very sparingly in his seven appearances. In his 145 defensive snaps, McGee recorded eight tackles and defended two passes.
McGee is earning a very modest, team-friendly salary, and after restructuring last season I really don’t see him being released, as many fans are suggesting. However, his role on the team may be similar to Chris Kelsay’s; a veteran presence in the locker room that the young players look to for guidance, while seeing minimal action on the field. He’s worth bringing back as a training camp body at the very least, but it seems as if the longtime Bills’ defensive back’s career is coming to a close.
Leodis McKelvin’s situation is an interesting one. While he was a high first round draft choice of the team in 2008, the coaching staff has had him at right cornerback, left cornerback, and the slot cornerback position, while never really making an impact at any. However, he has been a valuable asset on special teams, having the highest punt return average in the league in 2012, and was one of the top kick returners. In his 354 defensive snaps, he recorded 21 tackles, defended three passes, and picked off one pass in his 13 games, while allowing three scores.
McKelvin is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and reportedly would like to return to the team if they can agree on a contract. However, I’d say that if he wants starting cornerback money, let him walk. He gets beat far too often, and doesn’t have the top-end ball skills you look for in a cornerback. He’s been in the league for five seasons, and while he has improved, it’s been extremely slow progression, and there are quite a few upgrades available in free agency. On the other hand, he is a top special teams returner in the National Football League, and if he can come to a deal more similar to the four-year, $12.5 million contract kick returner Leon Washington signed, rather than a four-year, $40 million deal that Devin Hester signed, the Bills should be on board.
Justin Rogers was a seventh round pick in 2011 that caught on as a kick returner and marginal cornerback towards the end of the 2011 season. In 2012, Rogers saw a significant increase in playing time, appearing in all 16 games while making 37 tackles, two of which came for a loss, deflected five passes, and intercepted one. He played 547 defensive snaps, the third most among Bills’ cornerbacks.
Justin Rogers got beat a lot, allowing 41 catches for 472 yards and two touchdowns, while making some bone-headed plays on special teams, but one has to remember this was a seventh round draft pick out of Richmond, a very small school. It’s a surprise that he’s even on the active roster, let alone playing 500+ snaps at cornerback, so it’s nice to see him developing, even if it’s coming along slowly. He seemed to gain the trust of the coaching staff little by little, but now Rogers will have to start over with a completely new coaching staff, albeit one that aided the progression of Darrelle Revis, one of the top cornerbacks in the game.
For the next five to ten years, fans will always remember that the Bills selected cornerback Aaron Williams right before the Bengals and 49ers consecutively selected quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, both of whom have taken their teams to the playoffs, while Williams has been one of the worst defensive backs not only on the team, but in the entire National Football League. Williams missed five games with an injury this year, but made 32 tackles and deflected seven passes . However, ProFootballFocus graded Williams as the 94th ranked cornerback against the run, meaning that every team’s two starting cornerbacks, along with 30 more backups were better than him. He was a terrible tackler as well, grading out as the 74th ranked cornerback in terms of tackling efficiency, as the former Longhorn missed one tackle every 7.8 attempts.
Williams was targeted 43 times in his 563 defensive snaps, and allowed a ridiculous five touchdowns on 24 catches that gained 341 yards, while opposing quarterbacks had a 120.4 passer rating while throwing in his direction.
Aaron Williams has been absolutely miserable at cornerback for the Buffalo Bills. However, coming out of high school, he was the top rated safety in the nation, and coming out of Texas, most draft pundits expected him to transition to safety once he made the NFL. The problem is, the Bills have one of the best in the league at the free safety position in Jairus Byrd, which is where his skill set best translates to. He has put on some bulk since coming into the league last year, and could possibly move to strong safety, but there really doesn’t seem to be a good fit for him on this team.
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