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.
Buffalo's defense already had a host of playmakers on its side of the ball in 2013 when they ranked second in the league in both sacks (57) and interceptions (23). From a defensive line filled with Pro Bowlers, to Manny Lawson, Kiko Alonso, Aaron Williams and Buffalo's top corners when they returned from injury, the Bills had guys making plays. With key veteran additions via free agency – namely Corey Graham and Brandon Spikes - and the emergence of younger talent like Nickell Robey and Da'Norris Searcy in Jim Schwartz's new scheme, there are a handful of potential playmakers to be aware of as the team practices at St. John Fisher. Here's a rundown of new defensive difference makers to watch closely leading into the 2014 season.
1 – Corey Graham
Graham quickly made his presence felt in the spring practices, which included a two-interception day and a pair of interception returns for touchdowns. His deep ball pass defense has impressed early and his support against the run is underrated. His time on the field defensively might be dependent upon the health of starting corners Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, but if given enough opportunities Graham will make plays that anyone watching will notice.
"I understand the defense. It's coming better and better every day," Graham said. "I'm getting acclimated with being back out on the field and realizing where my teammates are going to be and just getting camaraderie with the guys. That will help me make plays."
2 – Manny Lawson
Lawson in his first season with the Bills rarely made the kind of play that made you jump out of your seat, but by season's end the outside linebacker was the team's third leading tackler, fourth in tackles for loss, fifth in sacks and tied for second in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
Now lining up at defensive end full time, Lawson is likely to make more of the headline plays in addition to the key ones he turned in routinely on third downs or in the red zone last season.
"I'm not going to drop as much," said Lawson of his role in 2014. "I will have my hand in the dirt more, but other than that the SAM linebacker and defensive end are relatively the same position. I don't have to cover anybody man to man now, so it's see ball, go get ball."
3 – Nickell Robey
Landing the full time nickel corner role last season was impressive enough for the former undrafted rookie, but Nickell Robey is not one to rest on his laurels. Tied for fourth in passes defensed, fifth in tackles for loss and three sacks as a blitzing corner in 2013, Robey showed flashes of the playmaker he can be. Poised to raise his game another peg or two Robey, with a strong season, could be seen as one of the elite slot corners in the game.
"If you measure heart, if you measure things like that, he's six-foot ten," said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz of Buffalo's diminutive cornerback. "He's been a guy that's been impressive, and it hasn't just been from watching practice here. Watching last year's tape, he's very unique in some of the quickness he has. He's got great anticipation, sees the game very well, and he's certainly going to have a role."
4 – Da'Norris Searcy
Searcy is one of those players that coaches call a gamer. He doesn't make the game-changing plays in practice, but come game day Searcy is a guy you want out on the field in critical situations. That's why the starting* *safety job next to Aaron Williams appears to be his to lose heading into training camp.
It's also why he stood fourth in pass breakups, fifth in tackles, sixth in sacks and led the team in defensive touchdowns with two. If he lands the starting safety role next to Williams he'll see far more playing time than he did as a hybrid nickel linebacker in 2013.
"I want to keep continuing to grow as a player and just perfecting things," said Searcy. "I just have to learn to just get better in my back end coverage of cover two because it's a little different for me. That's it."
5 – Brandon Spikes
Spikes was not a three-down player for the Patriots for the entire 2013 season, but he still tied for the team lead in stops according to Pro Football Focus with 48. Stops are solo tackles made that constitute an offensive failure on the play. Spikes' 48 stops were only eight fewer than Kiko Alonso last year and Alonso had almost twice as many snaps. The veteran linebacker also tied for New England's team lead in solo tackles (69).
Spikes' anticipation skills and football instincts are rare, and often have him in position to make plays despite not being the fleetest afoot.
"For me it's all about production and you want to be on the field and make stuff happen and be a game changer and make plays," Spikes said. "I'm anxious to get in front of the Bills fans. It's going to be fun."