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18 - Who will be the nickel corner?

Every summer leading up to training camp asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12*th *.

The transition to the 3-4 defense by the Buffalo Bills has already yielded some intriguing discussion regarding the various positional battles when training camp practice opens July 29 at St. John Fisher. Areas that have been addressed in detail to this point have been the defensive line and linebacker corps, but that is only half of the defensive alignment.

Another contentious competition is expected to take place for the third, or nickel, cornerback position in Buffalo's secondary. With Terrence McGee and 2008 first-round draft pick Leodis McKelvin returning from an injury-plagued 2009 season and expected to man the two outside corners, there are a number of names fighting for the slot corner role. Now that offseason OTAs are in the books, the principal combatants for the nickel spot seem to have been narrowed to Drayton Florence, Ashton Youboty, Reggie Corner, Lydell Sargeant, and Ellis Lankster.

Last year, the veteran Florence emerged from training camp as the clear number three, but was soon forced into the starting lineup after McKelvin went down for the season in Week 3. Florence was steady as a starter, recording 60 tackles and 11 passes defended. 

The eight-year NFL veteran certainly has the most experience in the nickel competition, and that will likely play to his advantage. In introducing a new defensive scheme for 2010, the Bills coaching staff will draw heavily on the football knowledge of all defenders, and Florence's past battles on Sunday, along with his steady play during offseason work, could have him on a fast track toward winning the slot position. 

Youboty had a relatively uneventful 2009 season after returning from a serious foot injury, recording only 12 stops and four passes defended. Expectations are still high for the 5'11", 189-pounder, who ironically won this positional battle as a third-year player in 2008, and played nickel corner the first five games before missing the remainder of the season with his aforementioned plantar fasciitis. 

The remnants of the injury seem to have disappeared from Youboty's game, and he accounted very well for himself this spring. For a veteran player who has already won this position in the past, Youboty is confident that he can do it again. 

"It's a matter of reps right now," Youboty said. "The more reps you get the more consistent and content you are out there on the field. I just feel good and that's what I can go with." 

University of Akron product Reggie Corner brings the best statistical campaign from last year to the table, an output total that could help him gain the edge. Once Florence took over the right cornerback duties, and with McGee out after knee surgery, Corner manned the left corner spot for a good portion of last season. In only eight starts in 2009, the 2008 fourth-round draft pick had 67 tackles, one interception, and nine passes defended.

The experience that he was able to gain on the field in-game, along with his limited work thus far in the 3-4, has Corner looking forward to the imminent competition.

"It's definitely a competitive sport and I'm competing with everybody in the secondary, but at the same time we're making everybody better," Corner said. "That conditioning is going to make an impact on the season and even the preseason. So we've got to be ready."

One of the up and coming wildcard choices is Sargeant, a player who is more than likely unfamiliar to many Bills fans. The 6'1", 187-pounder from Penn State was an impressive on-ball defender during spring workouts as a rookie last season, making plays all over the practice field. Just when it appeared he was gaining some momentum, Sargeant was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Sargeant returned with a vengeance this spring, playing a strong, compact style at the corner position, showing no lingering effects from his injury in terms of coverage and direction change. With new head coach Chan Gailey essentially announcing that all players would get a fair shot at positions under the new coaching staff, Sargeant could be a sleeper player in the mix.

Last but not least is Lankster, a second-year player chosen in the seventh-round of last year's NFL Draft from West Virginia University. He was another player, along with Sargeant, who showed flashes last spring as a rookie, but inexperience was what kept Lankster from seeing more action on the field, as he lost playing time to veterans like Corner and Youboty.

After appearing in 10 games, mostly on special teams, in 2009, Lankster was again impressive in OTAs, surely aware of the numbers game present at the cornerback section of the depth chart. Given the talent he displayed in coverage and play recognition during the spring, along with his natural athletic ability, Lankster should not be sold short as a viable candidate to make plays in the Buffalo secondary in 2010.

The outcome of the battle for the nickel cornerback position will be contingent on a number of factors, with the biggest being the health of the one and two. If McGee and McKelvin remain unscathed from their previous ailments, that will leave the other five players to compete for the coveted opening in the slot. The leader in the clubhouse would appear to be the experienced Florence, but if any, or all, of the other principal contenders make a big impression at training camp, it will be an interesting month in Pittsford.

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