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Beyond the Stats: Corey Graham vs. the other Bills CBs

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With the addition of Corey Graham, the Buffalo Bills now have four cornerbacks that participated in at least 600 snaps a piece in 2013. Think about that depth and experience. The Patriots were the only team to have four cornerbacks 600 defensive snaps last season. But aside from depth and special teams work, what does Graham provide the Bills on defense?

Last season as a Baltimore Raven, Graham played both out of the slot and outside cornerback roles. By my count, he was targeted on a pass 69 times. 33 of those passes were caught for 402 yards and five were intercepted (four by Graham). All of his targets are depicted below.

The Ravens used zone coverage schemes more last season than they, or Graham, openly admit. While deciphering zone versus man coverage assignments is often too difficult and inconsistent to individually chart, some of Graham’s blown assignments came on switches and confusion in the secondary. By the time he recognized his new assignment, he was out of position.

But those gaffes didn’t happen too often. And if they did, Graham’s speed and ball skills bailed him out. Examples of those two attributes are his four interceptions from last season. All four came on passes that were twenty five or more yards past the line of scrimmage. Leodis McKelvin and Nickell Robey combined for two in 2013. Here’s where all six occurred.

Speaking of McKelvin and Robey, where would Graham fit into the current depth chart at cornerback? Does he threaten McKelvin for the second starting cornerback spot or does he displace Robey in the nickel corner role?

Let’s start with McKelvin. Buffalo’s 11th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft was targeted 103 times and allowed just 41 catches for 518 yards last season. McKelvin doesn’t have great ball skills to make the spectacular interceptions, but he improved in pass break ups this season. 2013 was a big step forward for him as he was no longer viewed as a coverage liability.

McKelvin has incredible speed which helps prevent the big plays against. In the whole season, McKelvin allowed just seven gains of twenty or more yards. The league average in 2013 was about 16% of all targeted passes (no spikes, sacks, or throwaways). The chart below shows that if you want to a big play against McKelvin, it’s not coming all in the air.

Nickell Robey also had a nice 2013 season. He burst on the scene as an undrafted rookie and became a fantastic nickel cornerback. Robey’s skill set is his quickness and toughness close to the line of scrimmage. Unlike Graham, who had trouble containing career slot receivers like Wes Welker and Davone Bess (nine catches on eleven targets for 79 yards and three touchdowns), Robey limited the underneath routes.

On passes that traveled ten or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage, Robey allowed a 48.6% completion rate compared to Graham’s 67.6%. Robey didn’t get as lost underneath. Here are the targets against Buffalo’s rookie slot corner.

Robey’s weakness is the deep pass. He struggles in this area mostly due to his size. Deeper passes often lead to jump ball situations and Robey’s 5’8” body can’t contest with receivers who are often at least four inches taller than him.

Maybe Robey’s size will open the door for Graham, but it really shouldn’t. Robey is better at covering slot receivers on underneath routes than Graham and McKelvin is better on the outside. So again, where does Graham fit?

This ProFootballFocus article suggested that the Bills could use Graham as a second slot corner to help match up against the Patriots. While that might be true, how is that too different from being the fourth corner on a deep roster?

Graham’s great ball skills mentioned earlier might allow the Bills to use him in a more versatile role. After losing Jairus Byrd to free agency, the Bills second safety position could be questionably filled by Da’Norris Searcy, Duke Williams, or Jonathan Meeks. Searcy has been a part-time contributor on the defense in the past two seasons, but Williams was limited to 36 defensive snaps in 2013 and Meeks had none.

Maybe Graham, with his learned ability to read plays as they develop and Byrd-like catching skill set, could be a replacement centerfield safety for the Bills. It might take some convincing (it was the reason Graham left the Bears for the Ravens in 2012), but it could be Graham’s best bet to become a full-fledged starter in the NFL.

The risk to the Bills is limited, since the opportunity cost is another player with the same limited experience and similar upside (for Duke Williams, at best). Why not give him a shot if he’s the odd man out at corner? If McKelvin or Gilmore get injured again, Graham can slide over to corner and one of the three current safety options can move in at safety.

It should be interesting to see how the situation plays out at training camp this summer.

Michael Purinton

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