Positional Breakdown: Cornerback

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Probably one of the biggest question marks for the 2007 Buffalo Bills is Cornerback. The departure of solid but over-hyped starter Nate Clements to free agency with no obvious replacement has the national media saying less than positive things about the Bills chances in the coming season. Things may or may not be as bad as it seems, but one thing is for certain, the Bills are depending on young inexperienced players to step up into the void.

Nate Clements was certainly the anchor of this position in the past, but how much of an impact player was he really? The truth is, Nate looked a lot better before Buffalo implemented the Tampa Two defense. Nate is a cover corner, he is really good an keeping tight coverage on a single receiver. Even the best receivers in the league struggled against Nate in his time in Buffalo. The result is that opposing teams’ number one receivers generally had quiet days against Buffalo and Nate Clements when, and only when, Buffalo used a man coverage scheme. In other words, when you tell Nate Clements, “see that guy over there, he’s their best receiver, cover him all day.” he does a good job. However, when you play more of a zone type scheme that requires that the cornerback be reactive and read the field, Nate’s play slips off real quick. Nate is not very good at reading an offense and reacting to the play. This was very obvious in the first part of 2006 where Buffalo attempted to run their intended defensive schemes. Nate got eaten alive. Then around the time of the BYE week, Perry Fewell asked Nate to just shadow the best receiver on the other team and forget the scheme. It worked out ok, but thats not the defense the Bills are building. Nate just didn’t fit. All that aside, Nate Clements was tied with a bunch of players for 33rd in the league in interceptions last season. Think that was an off-season for Nate? Think again. Nate Clements has a total of 23 Interceptions in 6 years in the league. The most he has ever had in one season was 6 (which he achieved in 2002 and 2004). 6 Interceptions would have landed Nate 7th in the league in 2006 had he made that mark. Asante Samuel and Champ Bailey who are really difference makers each had 10 interceptions in 2006. Nearly half Nate’s career total. The reality is that no corner puts up those kind of numbers every year, but Nate never has. Interceptions come to players that are reactive and can hang in the zone and read the play.

Even though the Bills were right to let Nate Clements walk (especially considering the silly sum he received from the 49ers), they really don’t have a replacement for him. The Cornerback roster for the Bills is thin and not very exciting:

Terrence McGee
Jason Webster
Kiwaukee Thomas
Ashton Youboty
Jabari Greer
Eric Bassey
Chris Thompson
Reggie Lewis
Duane Coleman
Riley Swanson

You never can tell what diamonds in the rough might be in there, but this isn’t the kind of list that puts fear in the hearts of the opposing quarterbacks and receivers. Terrence McGee is listed at number one and he is a marginal corner at best. What makes McGee exciting is his return capability (the Bills will be crazy to take him off kick returns, starting corner or not, he is way too good, all-time franchise leader). In fact he is so good running through chaos with the ball that its worth sacrificing his often blundered coverage on the field for the chance that he makes an interception. McGee, when he gets the ball has high odds of making a big return or scoring a touchdown. This is the innate part of playing football, the natural vision. McGee is still pretty raw but his mistakes are more correctable. Nate Clements has all the technique but lacks the feel for the game that McGee has. McGee will need some work, but could take the next step this season. If not, the Bills may be looking deeper into their depth for Cornerback talent. Is it there?

Jason Webster figures to be the number two guy, he has played great so far in his minicamp work. While may consider this position open, I think Webster has it locked up. He has tons of experience and is a reliable piece in an otherwise wide open cornerback situation. He has more experience than McGee but has never been a real big play maker. Thats why he is the lock for the number two spot and not number one.

Kiwaukee Thomas came on strong in 2006 and should be guaranteed a roster spot. He was solid when the Bills used 3 cornerbacks in their nickel package. He also came in and played well spelling for Clements and McGee in 2006. Ashton Youboty possesses all of the talent to be the number one guy but so spot time in three games his rookie season. He seems to be a little slower on the uptake than the Bills would have liked, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a shot at doing something in 2007. Jabari Greer has been a solid backup and special teamer and will also likely be on the roster.

Between Bassey, Thompson, Lewis, Coleman and Swanson things are wide open for maybe 1 roster spot. The Bills may hold onto a couple good prospects on the practice squad in this area as well, so its likely that 3 of these guys could be around in September, if only on the practice field. Since the Bills don’t have a stand out corner they will be looking for diamonds in the rough and want to keep a few young guys around to see if they develop. Prior to camp it would be silly to guess which one of these guys will take the next step.

I’d like to see Webster, Youboty as the starters with McGee and Thomas rotating in heavily and filling the Nickel role. McGee has had a much greater impact on special teams so it seems stupid to have him focus on the part of his game where he has had less success. McGee has scored 4 touchdowns on Special Teams and only one on defense. The Bills will be playing more cover two and more zone than they did last year. They want fast reactive players. Guys that can break on the ball and take it away. Expect more turnovers for the Bills secondary in 2007 but also expect more blown coverages.

The Bills may have to rotate players a bit in the beginning of the season to see what group works best, but they have a lot of young players who may shine when given the chance. Then again they may not. The 2007 Bills with a little luck will have a solid if not daunting corps of defensive backs.

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