(Photo Courtesy of USA Today)
Everyone knows that hope of postseason play for the 2014 Buffalo Bills rides largely on the shoulders of quarterback E.J. Manuel. There are other big name players on the roster that will also contribute to the team’s success, but in this five part series, Dan Hannon looks to uncover “under the radar” players that will play significant roles in ending the team’s 14 year playoff drought.
CB Corey Graham
When Corey Graham was signed with RB Anthony Dixon in early March, the initial reaction was two great special teams signings to a squad that ranked at the very bottom of the league in almost every special teams category in 2013. When Doug Marrone brought his buddy Danny Crossman back for his second year as Special Teams Coordinator, they both mentioned they needed more “core special teams players.” Graham was certainly thought to fit that mold. The Buffalo native made a name for himself in Chicago as a special teams ace, thriving in all four areas, and making his only Pro Bowl appearance in 2011 as a gunner.
However, as we have progressed through OTA’s, mini-camp, and now on to training camp at St. John Fisher, it has become clear that Graham was brought in to provide depth at the cornerback position as well. This is something he did quite soundly in his last couple years in Baltimore. While this does not mean he cannot contribute his knowledge and experience to the Bills special teams players, it does not appear he will play a big role in any of them. Marcus Easley, who has proved his worth in the NFL through his special teams play the last few years, went on record in his interview with WGR a couple weeks back mentioning how great it has been having Graham around to ask questions and provide insight on how to further advance his skills as a gunner.
When it comes to what role Graham will play on this team, many thought he would get reps at first team safety alongside Aaron Williams. Doug Whaley stated early in training camp, however, that this would not be the case. These statements have held true up to this point as it has been former Tar Heel and fourth year pro Da’Norris Searcy taking most of the first team snaps, with second year man Duke Williams also competing for the position. That leaves cornerback, where Graham provides experience at both outside and slot coverage.
Graham has proved throughout his career that he can step in when needed and not miss a beat. He also brings along playoff experience, something no one else can say in the Bills secondary. During the Ravens Super Bowl run in 2012 Graham was thrust into the starting lineup mid-season when starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb were both lost for the year due to injury. This gave Graham his first regular starting job since college at New Hampshire. In the 2012 Divisional round playoff game in Denver against Peyton Manning and the top seeded Broncos, Graham had two interceptions and recorded 8 tackles. His first interception of the game put the Ravens up midway through the first quarter when he returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. After Baltimore’s miracle last minute drive to tie the game, Graham notched his second interception in overtime. This led to a Ravens game-winning field goal, advancing the team to the AFC championship game. Graham was named player of the game by the CBS crew, and would go on to win his first championship ring a few weeks later when the Raven defeated the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
With the addition of Graham, the Bills depth chart at cornerback suddenly becomes pretty deep. While most believe Stephon Gilmore is a star in the making, he is coming off what was basically a lost year after he broke his wrist at the end of the 2013 preseason. He missed the first five games of the year and when he came back with a club cast to protect the injury, he was not nearly as effective, since his biggest skill is being able to press and jam receivers off the line of scrimmage. Healthy once again, Gilmore should provide the lock down #1 corner that this team needs. The other incumbent starter is Leodis McKelvin. The former first-round pick and seven-year vet had by far his best year as a cornerback, specifically in terms of ball skills, under Defensive Backs Coach Donnie Henderson. Everyone who has watched McKelvin throughout his career can attest to the fact that he has always been able to keep up with the receiver, but when the ball arrives he rarely can make a play to prevent the catch. Last year, despite still only recording one interception, McKelvin was tied for 6th in the NFL with 13 pass deflections. He also ranked 7th among CB’s in coverage grade according to Pro Football Focus, while seeing a career high 947 snaps.
Then there is second year, undrafted slot corner Nickel Robey, who Graham will most likely be battling head-to-head with for playing time. Robey has quickly become a fan favorite due to this size (5’8” 185lbs) combined with his production (3.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT returned for a TD), but many believe his success was tied directly in to former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s heavy blitzing scheme. Jim Schwartz’s wide-9 defense, which tends to put defensive backs on an island, leans more toward Graham’s strengths, but Schwartz has been nothing but complimentary of Robey to this point. 2014 4th round pick Ross Cockrell has also been impressive in camp so far. Mike Randleman of iSportsWeb, stated that Cockrell “has shown great aggressiveness, especially when playing the ball, a hallmark of his career at Duke.” With five players pretty much solidified in making the roster, that leaves underperforming and oft-injured Ron Brooks, along with plenty of no names (as Robey was in camp last year) to round up what could be a position of strength for the 2014 Bills.
So will Corey Graham see significant playing time to start the year? That does not look likely. But do not be surprised to see him spelling his cornerback teammates all over the field at any time, as he saw 705 snaps last year as a reserve in Baltimore. This is the type of versatility the 29 year old provides. So far at camp he has spelled the first two cornerbacks often, as McKelvin and Gilmore have seen a lot of rest with Marrone not wanting to risk injury to either. In a league shifting toward bigger defensive backs, Graham is solidly built at 6’0 196lbs (same height, but 6 pounds heavier than Gilmore), with the ability to play physical. He has the ball skills to provide big plays, with 9 interceptions over the last three years. Graham is also known to be a very consistent tackler, recording 74 last year and only missing 4.
All in all, the depth Corey Graham provides at the cornerback position could loom large down the stretch for the 2014 Buffalo Bills, especially if injuries pile up like last year (Oh my goodness remember Justin Rogers started?) At a position where injury concern is high, bringing in a veteran with championship experience can certainly only help. So forget Patrick Kane, let’s start rooting for Corey Graham as the native son to bring home Buffalo’s first championship.
Extra thoughts I have that did not make their way into the article
- Thoughts entering the first pre-season game against the New York Giants
- EJ Manuel should play at least one quarter. He won’t, but he should. I really hope he plays confident and can keep moving forward as he has the last couple practices.
- How much will Sammy play? Do we want him to play a lot?
- I love all the competition along the offensive line, really looking forward to see who sticks out and plays well tonight, specifically the two rookies G Cyril Richardson and RT Cyrus Kouandjio.
- Another rookie, Seantrell Henderson, is an absolute house and could be a steal if the Bills can get him to perform up to his capabilities. With Glenn out for who knows how long, this could be a huge opportunity for the Miami product.
- Big opportunity for Chris Gragg. I do not know why, but I really like this kid. Maybe it’s because he has an OUNCE of athleticism unlike his fellow tight ends on the roster.
- Real interested to see what the Bills do with the weak side LB position tonight, a position that plays key in Schwartz’s wide-9 defense. With Bradham suspended for the first game of the year, does he really still see the majority of the snaps? Something to watch.
- Will TJ Graham provide ANYTHING?
- Cannot wait to see my man Bryce Brown tonight. I am super jacked up for this guy and with Spiller and Jackson seemingly the go-to-guys, Brown should get some serious touches. Also, is Boobie Dixon going to be their goal line back?
- I could go on and on but my goodness isn’t it great to have football back? Go Bills and congrats to Andre Reed.