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Camp Countdown: Who will be the nickel corner?

Posted Jul 3, 2014

Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore are presumed starters, but a definitive nickel corner has yet to be solidified.

Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we’ll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.

While Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore out for the majority of OTAs the Bills coaching staff was able to get an extended look at the depth at the cornerback position. The two former first-rounders are presumed starters, but a definitive nickel corner has yet to be solidified.

“Probably the secondary is where I’ve been the most impressed,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “I think we have some depth at corner, at nickel and we have a really exciting young player in Aaron Williams here. I’m excited with all three levels of the defense, but probably more so the secondary than anything else.”

Nickell Robey is the incumbent for the nickel spot after holding it down for most of the 2013 season. The undrafted second year player showed flashes in his rookie year as a playmaker with three sacks, a forced fumble, and a pick-six. Now that there is more competition at the position this year will he be able to elevate his play enough to keep the job?

If we are projecting solely based on OTAs and minicamp, his job appears to be safe. He made a key interception in minicamp while the offense was running the two-minute drill, made a couple more interceptions during OTAs, and generally made it tough for any receiver to grab a clean catch.

The leading contender to steal the job from Robey is new free agent pickup Corey Graham. Although they will be battling for the same position, Robey is taking every opportunity he can get from the veteran corner.

“Just learning from him. He’s been in the league going on eight years,” Robey told buffalobills.com. “Basically I’m just taking in what he says and his experience from other places and learning the offense as well as he can. He knows how the offense operates, so trying to learn from him and take in the knowledge and experience he has as far as the wisdom part of it. That relationship is great. Having him here it definitely makes things a lot better for us nickels because he knows what he’s talking about.”

Graham was brought in for his versatility. He has the ability to move over to safety if necessary, but he is primarily a corner capable of playing on the boundary or inside. The Buffalo native recorded four interceptions last year for the Ravens and has 10 picks in his career.

“One thing we like about [Graham] is he’s a professional,” general manager Doug Whaley said. “He’s highly intelligent and he’s a good football player so wherever we decide to put him we know he’s going to attack it with vigor and be a professional and be highly productive.”

Two other names to keep an eye on once training camp starts will be Ron Brooks and rookie Ross Cockrell.

Brooks performed well during OTAs in the opportunities he was given. He has not been able to prove what he can do on Sundays in the fall during his previous two years in the league due mainly to injury. Now that Brooks appears to be healthy he will provide some extra competition at the position.

Cockrell was most often seen working in with Robey at the slot corner position in the nickel package during minicamps and OTAs. The coaching staff is impressed enough with what they saw from him out of college and so far in the spring camps that he should see some opportunities in the slot in the preseason.