PITTSFORD - Buffalo Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin is working his way back into football shape after spending all spring rehabilitating from groin surgery.
The Bills say that’s why he is running with the second team so far during the first week of training camp practices.
McKelvin, however, is excited about getting a fresh start with the Bills’ new coaching staff. It would be good for the Bills if he solidified the starting corner job opposite Stephon Gilmore, because the other candidates for the job have lesser credentials.
“It’s a new opportunity for me, a new beginning with these new coaches,” McKelvin said after Tuesday’s practice at St. John Fisher College. “They’re doing a good job of letting me work myself back to full speed.”
McKelvin had surgery on Jan. 10 to repair a groin injury that caused him to miss the last three games of last season. The Bills’ new coaches saw enough in his play last season — he started four games — to reward him with a four-year, $17 million contract in March.
Third-year man Justin Rogers worked with the starting unit opposite Gilmore the first two practice days. Rogers sat out Tuesday, and third-year man T.J. Heath, cut by the Jaguars and Bengals the last two seasons, stepped up to the first team.
McKelvin’s snaps have been limited with the second team, but he looks like he’s running well.
“I’m running around pretty good,” he said. “I’m just trying to get myself back into football shape. I haven’t played football since Week 13 last year. I’m in shape. I passed the conditioning test, but I have to get back into the feel of the game. … I want to get myself built up to be ready for the preseason games and be ready for the season.”
“You got to remember here is a player who has been out for all of OTAs and minicamp,” said coach Doug Marrone, referring to organized team activities and other spring practices. “There are other players that have really done a good job and worked extremely hard. … In this situation we can bring a player up, get him playing and get him going and obviously make those moves as we evaluate his play. And we’ve been very happy with Leodis and what he has done and what is in front of him. So it’s a good situation for us.”
The Bills’ No. 2 corner position was a trouble spot last year. Aaron Williams struggled there the first half of the season before being benched. Veteran Terrance McGee wasn’t healthy enough to play there the second half of the season. Ron Brooks had rookie struggles in two starts.
McKelvin fared the best of the bunch when he took over for Williams. McKelvin, the Bills’ first-round pick in 2008, has been in and out of the lineup over five seasons.
He looked like he had established himself at corner after a pretty good third season in 2009, when he started 13 games. But two poor games in the first part of the 2011 season caused him to be benched.
“The slate is clean to go out and compete,” McKelvin said. “I didn’t come out and start right away my rookie year. I went through some bumps. Then I ended up getting hurt my second season. That slowed the process. Then I came back my third year and we had new coaches in. I started off second and worked my way back in. Things happened to me. Some guys made big plays on me and I was benched because of that.”
McKelvin still was contributing when he wasn’t on defense. He had a punt-return TD in 2011 and led the NFL on punt returns last year with an 18.7-yard average. He has four career kick returns for touchdowns.
“I had to keep myself going, not give up on myself and have confidence in myself,” McKelvin said. “I’m a defensive player at heart. I’ve been playing cornerback all my life. I look at that as my first position. That’s what I do. Punt-return duties are something I can bring to the table. I love to have the ball in my hands.”
McKelvin has elite athleticism. He ran a 4.38-second time in the 40-yard dash entering the NFL Draft. He needs to show the new staff he can be steady in coverage down the sideline.
Rogers was a seventh-round pick in 2011. He has played a lot inside in passing situations the last two seasons and is trying to prove he can succeed outside. Heath has decent size, at 6-foot and 188 pounds. He was undrafted out of Jacksonville State in 2011. He spent last season on the Bills’ practice squad after being released by the Bengals.
The Bills have been using Brooks, a fourth-round pick last year, with the first-string nickel defense covering slot receivers so far in camp.