Why it's too early to label Graham a safety

May, 15, 2014
May 15
3:00
PM ET
It's been a simmering debate all spring in Buffalo: Where will Corey Graham line up within the Buffalo Bills' defense?

In truth, the Bills and Graham don't even know for sure. The assumption is that when the team ramps up its on-field work for organized team activities in two weeks, Graham will see time at both safety and cornerback.

With two months until training camp and nearly four months until the start of the regular season, the Bills have time to figure things out with Graham. But to say that Graham will be a starter at safety is jumping the gun.

[+] EnlargeCorey Graham
AP Photo/Nick WassCorey Graham has the ability to play safety or cornerback for the Buffalo Bills.
To help set the record straight on Graham, let's circle back on what general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone have said about Graham since his signing -- and where the idea of Graham as a safety has arisen:

  • Marrone on March 25: "What's interesting about him is that he can play an outside corner and play it well. We have two good corners coming back. He can play nickel and start at nickel, and that would be a good competition in there. ... He may be in the mix back there at the safety spot. ... There are a lot of things that we've been talking about with Corey and with ourselves as far as the defensive staff. ... We'll go out there in the OTAs, and it'll be the same thing. I like to -- and I always have -- move some guys around a little bit. That's the time where you do it. As you get closer to the season, you don't want to be doing that stuff."
  • Whaley on April 25: "Right now he’s got the flexibility to do both [cornerback and safety]. ... I think that’s going to be worked out either way. That’s more of a coaching question. A lot of times it works out because we get into camp and if we have injuries at safety then he has the flexibility to move to safety. If there’s a rash of injuries at corner, he’ll be predominantly a corner. At the end of camp I’ll be able to give you a better answer."
  • Marrone on May 10: "His primary position obviously is corner. But he is also someone that can play the safety position."

While the Bills have floated the possibility of Graham playing safety, Whaley's message has consistently been that the battle to replace Jairus Byrd will come down to Jonathan Meeks, Da'Norris Searcy, and Duke Williams:

  • Whaley on March 14: "The young guys we have on the roster -- Duke Williams, Meeks and Searcy -- we think that competition between those three, we'll get a guy who will come out and help us win."
  • Whaley on March 24: "We’ll always keep our eyes open, but we’re very confident with the guys we have on campus. I know a lot of people have some question marks. We don’t."
  • Whaley on April 25: "We believe in the guys we have on campus. Meeks and Searcy and Duke Williams. We think it’s time for one of those guys to step up. It won’t preclude us, if we see a safety there [in the draft] who can come in and help us we’ll go get him."

In our view, it's too early to pencil in Graham as the starter at safety alongside Aaron Williams. Graham's NFL experience with the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears has come at cornerback, especially in the slot, and to project him as a safety at this point in the offseason would be premature.

No matter where Graham plays, the Bills paid him as if they are expecting significant contributions from the veteran. Graham's contract averages $4.075 million per season, which ranks in the top 30 among NFL cornerbacks and top 25 among NFL safeties.

Because of that, I think Graham has a legitimate chance to overtake Nickell Robey as the Bills' top interior cornerback. Marrone said at the NFL owners meetings in March that the modern NFL requires teams to have two quality slot cornerbacks.

The Bills could have that in Graham and Robey, but given Graham's salary, it would be disappointing if he is the fourth cornerback on the field. Unless the Bills feel comfortable moving Graham to safety full time, Robey's playing time could be lessened this season.

That's not to say that Robey didn't have a good season last year. He did, and he's a high-character player within the Bills' locker room. But between the Bills signing Graham and drafting cornerback Ross Cockrell in the fourth round, there are signs that Robey may not fit as well within Jim Schwartz's scheme as he did within Mike Pettine's system.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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