Though defensive coordinators might still label it as such, the nickel corner position is no longer a subpackage role in the NFL. With the proliferation of spread formations and wide open passing offenses, a team’s third cornerback often finds himself on the field for 60 to 65 percent of the defensive snaps in a game. Having a capable slot defender or two is critical to a team’s pass defense. Fortunately the Bills have more than their share of candidates to fill the position. The question is which cornerback will win the job coming out of training camp?
Bills GM Buddy Nix subscribes to drafting a cornerback every year. This past spring he drafted two, just as he did in 2011. What it’s provided Buffalo’s defense is a solid mix of youth and experience in what looks to be a four-man competition for the top job in the slot.
Buffalo’s first fourth-round pick in April was an impressive performer in OTAs and minicamp. Equipped with the fastest feet in the entire Bills secondary, Brooks also has the compact frame necessary to change direction at lightning-quick speed to mirror slot receivers.
Brooks is still learning on the job, but after being given a high workload of reps in the spring practices the LSU product looked like he belonged.
“That’s the way I learn,” he said. “I’m better going out there and doing it and getting reps at it. Whatever the coaches feel like they want to do with me and how they feel they need to play me I’ll do it.”
More must be learned about Brooks’ game when the pads go on, but if he can carry the momentum he generated from the spring through training camp, he could be a legitimate challenger for the nickel role.
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However, after McGee pulled his hamstring on the first defensive play of the season the plan went out the window. He returned later in the season, but went on injured reserve with a torn patellar tendon in his knee in Week 11. Now the 10-year veteran is just trying to get healthy to compete in training camp.
“I’m shooting for training camp,” said McGee. “Hopefully I’ll be 100 percent and be able to go out there and compete for a job.”
McGee has been one of the most consistent cornerbacks on the roster over the last decade, which explains why he’s the elder statesman of the cornerback contingent. He’s played the slot effectively in the past. If his health is up to par, McGee can be a very viable candidate and lend valuable experience to a cornerback corps that is much younger than it used to be.
The former first-round pick is coming off a season where in most cases his coverage was tight, but his timing to make plays on the ball was not. McKelvin gave up his share of big plays in the passing game last season, when there were an unusually high number of them collectively by the secondary.
McKelvin was used a good deal in the slot in spring practices and still has the elite physical skills that made him a first-round draft choice five years ago. Perhaps the defensive staff feels using him in the short to intermediate area where slot receivers generally travel could maximize those skills more effectively.
“Last year I didn’t play the nickel,” said McKelvin. “I know I can play on the field in nickel situations and they’re just trying to work me in. I never had a chance to ever try to be in there out of the four years that I’ve played. It’s just a chance to go inside and do what I can do.”
McKelvin had a few good days during OTAs, and he’s still a candidate to start outside at cornerback. Consistency in his game has been what Buffalo’s defensive staff has waited on with McKelvin. If he can put it together in an all-important contract year the nickel job could be his.
With McGee missing long stretches of the 2011 season, then rookie Justin Rogers got a good dose of playing time and performed well in the nickel and other subpackage roles for Buffalo’s defense. His first career interception came off Tim Tebow in the Week 16 shellacking of the Broncos (40-14).
Rogers came into the spring camps with another five to seven pounds of lean muscle on his frame. The benefits of the OTAs and minicamp for Rogers, who did not have those practices last offseason as a rookie (NFL lockout), were obvious and only enhanced his confidence in playing the slot.
“I’m really comfortable,” said Rogers. “Last year it was something new to me because I played it a little bit in college, but not as heavily as I did last year. I became really comfortable with it and I like it. There is an art to it that I am still learning, but I am getting used to it.”
Rogers was among the more impressive slot corners in the spring. A strong training camp could ultimately give Rogers the nod this fall.
Head coach Chan Gailey believes that competition makes everyone better and with four legit candidates in the fold for the slot corner spot, the battle figures to be heated.