Before the regular season, the Bills organization and fans looked at the secondary depth chart and gasped at the sight they saw. Lost was number one corner Stephon Gilmore for eight to ten weeks and everyone else had been drastically underperforming in the preseason or was injured. Now after week one, despite some troublesome pass defense, there was at least one bright spot in former first round draft pick Leodis McKelvin’s play.
McKelvin was a first round pick of the Bills all the way back in 2008 and had been yanked more times than a yo-yo between being a starter and benched. His Bills career can be best described as a game of chutes and ladders. McKelvin was heading up in 2008 and 2010 picking off two passes in each campaign, and then had slid back down the depth chart since 2010. Last year he found a role as a punt returner, but still hadn’t returned full time to the position he was drafted to play.
With a new coaching staff and management team in control this offseason, they entrusted McKelvin and his raw physical ability with a new four year, $17 million extension. The hope being that he could help solidify the secondary opposite stud Gilmore. Under a defensive coordinator that knows how to develop corners, the team hoped they could uncover a diamond in the rough.
Part of McKelvin’s maturation is new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Pettine, when with the Jets, helped turn Darrell Revis into the best corner in the league, and helped polish Antonio Cromartie from raw talent into a skilled defender. If Pettine is able to not only improve McKelvin but Gilmore as well, then the Bills could have one of the best cover corner duos in the league.
For this season, McKelvin started slow as he was limited in training camp as he recovered from surgery and dealt with other injuries when he did return to practice. Needless to say no one expected him to play as well as he did Sunday. Against the New England Patriots, McKelvin flashed his speed covering the opponent’s receivers. For the day, he defended a team-leading four passes and added five tackles.
The biggest stumbling block that has kept McKelvin from developing into a great corner has always been his ball skills. The foot speed is unquestioned, it’s instead his inability to read and react to the man he is covering. On Sunday McKelvin was able to read his receiver and make plays on the pass that would have previously turned into catches. To put it in perspective, the Bills defense totaled seven passed defended against the Patriots, McKelvin had four of them.
It may be one game, and McKelvin may fall back into his old habits, but so far things look more positive than what they were before Sunday. Much of what makes a good corner is having unbridled confidence and trust in yourself that you are going to shut down your assignment. Thus far it appears McKelvin’s swagger has returned and hopefully the skills that once made him a first round choice continue to shine as well.