AFC East: T.J. Heath

Depth at cornerback tested for Bills

August, 16, 2013
With three of their top cornerbacks not playing in tonight's preseason game against Minnesota, the Buffalo Bills will be digging down their depth chart to find healthy bodies at the position.

Cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin, Justin Rogers, and Crezdon Butler all will sit out the contest. Undrafted rookie Nickell Robey will start opposite Stephon Gilmore.

The Bills started Ron Brooks in that spot in last Sunday's win over Indianapolis, but Brooks projects to man the slot cornerback position this season for Buffalo, and the team wants to keep him there.

Robey, 21, is one of the youngest players in the NFL, having left USC after his junior campaign. He is also the smallest player on the Bills' roster, at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. He should see extensive action tonight.

Otherwise, here is how the Bills' depth chart in the secondary could shake out tonight:

First team
Cornerback: Gilmore, Robey
Slot: Brooks
Safety: Aaron Williams, Da'Norris Searcy

Second team
Cornerback: T.J. Heath, Jumal Rolle
Safety: Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks

Third team
Cornerback: Don Unamba, Kip Edwards
Safety: Dominique Ellis, Jordan Dangerfield, Mark LeGree

Buffalo Bills practice report

July, 31, 2013
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills were back on the practice field Wednesday morning, holding their second full-padded session of training camp.

Passing along some observations:

Williams back, but does not participate: Defensive end Mario Williams was back in uniform after leaving training camp to have his sore foot evaluated. Williams worked with the strength and conditioning staff on the sidelines, and did not participate in practice. Meanwhile, tight end Scott Chandler (ACL) and defensive lineman Kyle Williams (Achilles) continued to be held out of team drills. Head coach Doug Marrone said the team has built in rest days for Chandler, who had knee surgery in January.

[+] EnlargeLeodis McKelvin
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsBills coach Doug Marrone came away impressed with the play of defensive back Leodis McKelvin on Wednesday.
Rogers sits out; McKelvin gets bumped up: Cornerback Justin Rogers was not in uniform on Wednesday after suffering a right hamstring injury in Tuesday's session. Marrone said after practice that Rogers will be out "for a short period of time." Rogers began training camp with the first team and was replaced by T.J. Heath on Tuesday. However, veteran Leodis McKelvin ran with the first team on Wednesday, with Heath and Crezdon Butler playing cornerback for the second group.

"He made a heck of a play on a comeback [pattern]," Marrone said of McKelvin after practice. "When you're out for that long, it takes some time. He's really coming along nicely. We're excited about that."

Elliott carted off: Second-year receiver Kevin Elliott was carted off the practice field with a right shoulder injury. Elliott made an impressive diving catch during 11-on-11s against top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but came down hard on his shoulder and looked to be in pain on the sideline. Elliott is the mix for a back-end roster spot.

Other injuries: Marrone said a pair of running backs were hobbled with ankle injuries on Wednesday. Veteran Tashard Choice came up slow during a punt drill and talked to trainers, but later came back onto the field for 11-on-11 work. Meanwhile, Zach Brown suffered an ankle injury that Marrone said doctors will examine.

Manuel gets first-team action: Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel ran the first-team offense during the initial 11-on-11 period of practice after spending most of his time with the second team to begin training camp. Veteran Kevin Kolb led the top group for the final two 11-on-11 periods. For the second consecutive practice, Manuel avoided making any critical mistakes while in the pocket, but looked to face more blitz pressures than he has in previous sessions.

Kolb was intercepted during an early 7-on-7 drill by Gilmore, who undercut rookie running back Kendall Gaskins on a short pattern. Kolb was later intercepted by safety Da'Norris Searcy on a pass intended for rookie receiver Marquise Goodwin, and also had some throws that sailed behind receivers T.J. Graham and Robert Woods. On the plus side, it was Kolb who lofted a well-thrown ball to Elliott on the play where he was injured.

Dime package gets work: The Bills had six defensive backs on the field for a stretch of their final 11-on-11 period. Safety Duke Williams was one of the players coming on, with Bryan Scott replacing Nigel Bradham at linebacker. Along the defensive line, Manny Lawson and Alex Carrington provided the pass rush. On the second unit, rookie Nickell Robey manned the slot, intercepting quarterback Jeff Tuel late in the period.

Punters look even: The punt unit returned to action Wednesday, with Shawn Powell and Brian Stahovich both impressive during both special-teams periods. However, returners had issues during the first period, with Woods and Graham both muffing catches, drawing the ire of special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman.

Good day at the office for: McKelvin. The changes at cornerback continue for the Bills, and McKelvin was the latest to take reps with the first team. He didn't disappoint, showing tight coverage and breaking up a throw from Kolb to Woods during 11-on-11s.

Bad day at the office for: Kolb. It's tough to compare him side-by-side to Manuel since Kolb is usually seeing the best unit from the defense, but Kolb continues to struggle at times with his accuracy and decision making. He's in the spotlight given the quarterback situation, so his mistakes are more magnified than those of other players.

What's next: Players are off Thursday before returning to practice Friday morning from 8 to 11:10.
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- After practice Tuesday, Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore stayed on the field as a JUGS machine fired footballs at him from about 10 yards away.

The 10th overall pick in 2012 is arguably the AFC East's best cornerback entering this season, and is uncontested at the top of the depth chart in Buffalo.

But who will line up across from Gilmore, as the team's other starting cornerback?

[+] EnlargeLeodis McKelvin
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsVeteran CB Leodis McKelvin returns to the Bills' lineup following a groin injury that curtailed the end of his 2012 season.
The Bills have invested high draft picks at the position, including a first-round pick in 2008 (Leodis McKelvin) and a second-round pick in 2011 (Aaron Williams). At this point, McKelvin remains in the hunt for the job, while Williams is settling into the free safety spot left vacant by the absence of a franchise-tagged Jairus Byrd.

While it's always possible that Williams could slide back to cornerback once Byrd returns, the Bills had Justin Rogers as their top cornerback across from Gilmore to begin training camp Sunday.

Here's a look at the candidates for No. 2:

Rogers -- A seventh-round pick in 2011, Rogers has started one game in each of his first two seasons. In 2012, he played in 49 percent of defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders, while also providing a presence on special teams (38 percent of snaps). The 25-year old who played at Division 1 FCS contender Richmond appears to be the frontrunner for the job. At 5-foot-11, 181 pounds, he has sufficient size for an NFL cornerback.

T.J. Heath -- Entering the league in 2011 as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Heath spent most of last season on the Bills' practice squad. He didn't appear in a game for Buffalo, and has not started an NFL contest. When Rogers sat out team drills for unknown reasons on Tuesday, it was Heath who stepped in with the first team. The 25-year old Jacksonville State product has good size at 6-feet, 188 pounds, but appeared thin through his midsection during practice Tuesday. His ability to press receivers off the line will be something to watch during live game action.

McKelvin -- The most experienced player in Buffalo's secondary, McKelvin has started 33 games over his career with the Bills. His contributions on defense have tailed off in recent seasons, though, and he played in just 32 percent of defensive snaps last season. McKelvin is a threat on special teams, returning two punts last season for touchdowns, and at 5-10 and 185 pounds is slightly undersized for his position. McKelvin missed OTAs and minicamp this offseason recovering from a groin injury that ended his 2012 season, and head coach Doug Marrone hinted Tuesday that McKelvin is still getting back up to speed, which could explain his position on the depth chart at this point.

Other candidates include Ron Brooks, who has exclusively lined up in the slot so far this training camp, and Crezdon Butler, who is with his fourth NFL team.

Whoever earns the starting job, it's important to remember one thing: proven pass-catchers in the AFC East are relatively scarce.

Here's a breakdown of which receivers the Bills' No. 2 cornerback will square off against for six of the team's 16 games this season:

Miami Dolphins -- If Gilmore matches up against speedy free-agent signing Mike Wallace, then the other cornerback will be tasked with defending Brian Hartline. He's coming off a career season with the Dolphins, and the biggest problem could be his size. At 6-foot-2, Hartline presents match-up problems for Rogers, Heath, or McKelvin. This will be the biggest challenge on the division slate.

New England Patriots -- The Patriots will likely use Danny Amendola in the slot, which could draw Gilmore into an inside role. The Patriots are still searching for answers on the outside. Whether it's veterans Michael Jenkins or Kamar Aiken, or rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, or Kenbrell Thompkins -- and yes, the competition in New England looks to be that wide open -- the problem in almost any case is still size, especially with Jenkins (6-foot-4) and Dobson (6-foot-3).

New York Jets -- The Jets' struggles at receiver from recent seasons look to carry over into 2013. Top target Santonio Holmes is injured, and the Jets need more out of 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill. In any case, the No. 2 receiver in New York shouldn't be a major issue for whoever earns the starting role at cornerback in Buffalo.