The Buffalo Bills secondary was quietly one of the most impressive in the game throughout the 2013 season. Finishing the year 4th overall in passing YPG allowed with 204.4 and 2nd overall behind only the Super Bowl Champion-Seahawks in interceptions with 23, the unit was certainly one of the strengths of the team last year. Two major things happened this off-season that has caused some skepticism about that same unit heading into the 2014 season: Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine jumped ship to take a head coaching position with the Cleveland Browns after just one year in Buffalo and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd’s seemingly never-ending contract saga finally resulted in him moving on and signing a mega-deal with the New Orleans Saints. These two events are undoubtedly a cause for concern for a secondary that played at such a high level with both of those guys highly involved. However, when you take a deeper look into things, there are reasons to believe it won’t necessarily result in a “Two steps forward, one step back” situation heading into the 2014 season.
The New Leader
When Jairus Byrd arrived in Buffalo via the Oregon Ducks as a second round pick in the 2009 draft, he not only made a splash on the stat sheet with an incredible 9 interceptions in his rookie season, he also was almost immediately installed as the leader of the Bills’ secondary. By now you know how the story goes from there – after five productive seasons leading the Buffalo secondary, multiple contract disputes were too much for the team and player to overcome and Byrd played his last game in red, white and blue in 2013.
Two years after Byrd came into the league, the Bills spent another high-second round pick on a defensive back, this time it was cornerback Aaron Williams out of Texas. Williams entered his first training camp as a 21-year old in 2011 with a ton of raw physical tools and even more to learn. As many rookies do, he tended to follow the lead of the veteran players such as Byrd, and seemingly was quick to get down on himself after any type of miscue. Flash forward to the 2013 season. Due to a constant void at strong safety opposite of Byrd, Williams was converted to the position from the backup corner spot that he had occupied his first two seasons in the league. To say that he adapted quickly would be a pretty severe understatement. Williams played the position as if he had been there his entire professional career, finishing the season with 82 tackles, 4 interceptions and 11 passes defended in just 14 games. He played the run and the pass equally well, and seemed to have the makings of a new leader on defense as the year went on.
Buffalo’s front office rewarded Aaron Williams for his stellar play in 2013 with a 4-year contract extension in the off-season, signaling their trust and confidence in him. With Byrd gone, he was/is expected to be the new leader of the secondary. This past Sunday night, when the 2014 edition of Buffalo Bills Training Camp kicked off at St. John Fisher College, I was fortunate enough to secure a hospitality pass for the practice and had the opportunity to be very close to much of the action. As it turned out, the defensive back group was nearest to me much of the night. Throughout this practice, it was very clear who the new leader of the Bills’ secondary was now that Jairus Byrd was down south. Aaron Williams was first in line at every drill, was communicating with other players throughout those drills, and was seemingly attached to defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson’s hip for much of the practice. He carried himself in such a way that made it very clear who the alpha male of the group is at the moment. He also didn’t disappoint with his play that night, as he made a nice interception down the sideline and constantly seemed to be in the right position. Williams is a very different player, both physically and mentally, then he was when he came into the league in 2011. He has accepted the leadership role of the Bills’ secondary and I fully expect him to take yet another step as both a player and leader in 2014.
As I just said, I believe that Aaron Williams is now the unquestioned leader of the Buffalo Bills’ secondary. He will really help ease the pain of losing a guy like Byrd if he continues to display those attributes. That being said, what makes me all the more confident that Buffalo can absorb the Byrd/Pettine losses is the sum of the parts that are playing alongside Williams. At both cornerback and safety, there is both depth and talent unlike anything that we’ve seen at the positions in a number of years. There is also versatility. The Bills will need both to sustain the loss of Byrd’s play and Pettine’s scheme that creates opportunities for the secondary.
Arguably more than any other position on the team – depth and versatility is apparent in the Bills’ cornerback group. Stephon Gilmore leads the way. Had it not been for a broken hand suffered during a pre-season game in the middle of a stellar 2013 training camp, I believe Gilmore would have entered the realm of one of the top shutdown corners in all of football last season. Not only did the missed time hurt, but when he finally made his way back onto the field, it was with a club on that injured hand. Think that might cause some problems for a bigger corner who thrives on getting his hands on a WR and disrupting his route? Once fully healthy, Gilmore immediately reestablished himself as one of the premier young players at his position. I expect him to continue trending upward this season. Leodis McKelvin was able to stay healthy last season and thrived working almost exclusively in man-to-man coverage for the first time in his year. McKelvin ended up tied for 4th in the entire NFL with 19 passes defended, and truly seemed to turn the corner and play like the top-15 pick that he was way back in 2008. Gilmore and McKelvin will be expected to lock down opposing outside targets once again in 2014.
The Bills got a very pleasant surprise in 2013 undrafted free agent Nickell Robey, who was one of the premier slot corners in the game as a rookie. Although undersized at 5’7″, 165 lbs., Robey plays with a ferocity in the run game and with impressive anticipation in the passing game. It isn’t often that you get an immediate impact player in the undrafted free agent group, but Robey is certainly that.
Not resting on their laurels at the position, the Bills went out and signed Buffalo-native and Super Bowl champion Corey Graham in the off-season. Graham is the definition of versatile. He has seen plenty of time covering both the outside and slot during his years with the Bears and Ravens, and he should be doing both with the Bills. He may even see some time at safety in certain situations if the need arises, and he has been an ace special teamer since day one in the league.
Ross Cockrell, Buffalo’s 2014 4th-round pick, should also be a lock for one of the cornerback spots. He brings good size (6’0″, 190 lbs.) and should contribute immediately on special teams and possibly in certain dime packages. I believe the Bills will end up keeping 6th corners, and as of today, I think that spot will be won by Mario Butler. Ron Brooks has simply not done enough since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2012 out of LSU. He is the definition of inconsistent, and I think the frequent lapses in concentration and responsibility will be too much for this coaching staff. By all accounts, Butler looked very good in off-season workouts, he has ideal size at 6’1″, 190 lbs., and I was impressed with his fluidity and hands in drills when I was in-person on Sunday. I think he unseats Brooks and becomes the sixth man in an awfully strong group of cornerbacks.
Since I have already said pretty much all there is to say about Aaron Williams, we will start with the other lock to make the team, Da’Norris Searcy. I know I said that Corey Graham defines “versatility”, but I think it’s fair to say the same goes for Searcy. He is not only the favorite to win a starting spot opposite of Williams, but he is also big enough (5’11”, 220 lbs.) that he may see some time in the box on 3rd downs now that Kiko Alonso is lost for the year. Searcy has steadily improved throughout his 4 years with the Bills. He still needs some work in the passing game, but he has always been sound against the run, using his frame to shed blocks and attack runners with authority. I also noticed Searcy being very vocal throughout Sunday night’s practice, and I think he is next in line to embrace a leadership role within the group. At the end of the day, I think he does enough to win the other starting job at safety.
The safety position is yet another where I believe the Bills are rich in depth. Although they’ve both seen very limited action since entering the league, both Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks are talented players who have had the opportunity to learn from Jairus Byrd and Aaron Williams. Duke Williams is more of the strong safety-type, who excels at playing the run, while Meeks is better in space and at times displays strong instincts in the passing game. I believe that both end up sticking and making the roster, providing the Bills with excellent depth. The wild card at the safety position is my favorite undrafted free agent that came to Buffalo this off-season, Kenny Ladler out of Vanderbilt. Ladler certainly looks the part at 6’0″, 200 lbs. and he displayed his size and athleticism at the combine by completing 24 reps on the bench and showing off a vertical jump of 36.5″. This size/athleticism combo translated into 91 tackles, 5 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles during his senior season playing in the best conference in the nation while at Vandy. Ladler doesn’t have the most impressive foot speed in the world, but the tape shows that he often makes up for that with instinctual play. He flashed during Sunday’s practice and is one of my favorite “long shots” to make the 53-man roster and would provide even more depth in the Bills’ secondary entering the 2014 season.
The Bills lost two key components to their defense in Jairus Byrd and Mike Pettine. Byrd’s impact on the secondary is obvious, but you could argue that Pettine had just as great an impact due to his attacking style of defense that seems to make the lives of the players patrolling the back end much easier. However, Buffalo has both the leadership to replace Byrd and the talented depth to ease the pain of a scheme transition. With this in mind, I wouldn’t expect the Bills’ secondary to miss a beat in the 2014 season.