PITTSFORD – A defense aiming to finish No. 1 in the NFL may need to start a rookie at cornerback. Veteran Leodis McKelvin watched Saturday’s practice from a golf cart with a scooter in the back.
One day after staying vague on the injury, coach Rex Ryan was asked if McKelvin had a setback from the ankle he broke last year.
“I would think so,” he said.
The Bills can lift McKelvin off the non-football injury list any time. If he remains on the list through the final roster cutdown, he’ll miss the first six weeks of the season. It all means that second-round Ronald Darby could be counted on sooner than expected.
“Opportunities come for other people,” Ryan said. “We’re excited about where Darby’s at. The depth that we have at that position is good. But Leodis is a good football player. We hope that he gets back onto the field soon.”
Ryan did say McKelvin is able to walk, adding the former first-round pick is in the cart to keep weight off the injury.
McKelvin, who turns 30 years old in September, has played a full 16 games in three of his seven pro seasons. He had 48 tackles and four interceptions last season before fracturing his ankle in a Nov. 13 loss at Miami. He practiced on a limited basis through organized team activities and minicamp in the spring before suffering this setback.
So now, Darby has a chance to earn the job outright. Publicly and privately, coaches have been high on the cover man from Florida State since his first day in Buffalo. Through two days of practices, he’s been able to stick with receivers stride for stride.
The first 11-on-11 period of training camp, Darby picked off a Matt Cassel heave intended for Robert Woods. Ryan insists he’s comfortable starting Darby right now if needed.
“Of course,” Ryan said. “It’s not the first time we’ve ever started a rookie. We feel that this guy can play. Hopefully, Leodis comes back soon. But obviously, if he doesn’t, the next man steps up. We feel good about Darby.”
One adjustment Darby needed to make at this level is his technique. On the practice field afterward, he demonstrated. Fellow starter Stephon Gilmore is helping him stay “more square” with receivers off the line.
In college, he played with a narrow base.
“In the league, guys are quicker off the line,” Darby said. “So you’ve got to be more shoulder-width apart and up more. I used to sit down a lot in college – I played a lot lower. … You’ve got to move lateral with these receivers. If you’re down, your feet are stuck in the ground.”
Added Ryan, “I think there’s a step up any time you get to this level. The technique has to be what you rely on. It has to be perfect. You strive to be perfect here.”
Winning at the line, he’s learning, is critical. Let Sammy Watkins or Marquise Goodwin get a free release, he said, and “you’re battling.” That’s why he’s always been a cornerback who prefers press coverage.
“I love press. It’s just you and him,” Darby said. “Every day, I want to make plays. That’s my goal.”
He’s getting that opportunity now.
Rookie guard John Miller dropped out of practice with a bruised ankle, but Ryan expects the third-round pick from Louisville to be back soon.
“Nothing serious at all,” Ryan said. “He’ll probably be a day, maybe two days max.”
Cyril Richardson took Miller’s place at right guard with the first team.
Meanwhile, at right tackle, Ryan basically fired off the starter’s gun on a competition between Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson. Kouandjio, who played three snaps last year, has been working with the first unit last year’s starter.
But Ryan is pleased with how Henderson bounced back from a rough spring.
“He’s ready to compete,” Ryan said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. That’s where that competition is going to be fierce and it’s going to be great to watch.”
The Bills added depth at tackle, claiming 6-foot-7 341-pound Terren Jones off waivers from Tennessee. Jones played one game for the Titans last year.
LeSean McCoy turned heads again Saturday with a juke in the hole that froze a defender. It’s clear the Bills plan on feeding their $40 million back early and often this season.
Who’s the No. 2 back? That’s completely up in the air. Fred Jackson, Karlos Williams, Bobbie Dixon and Bryce Brown have all been splitting carries.
Jackson is the resident rock star with the St. John Fisher College crowd. Dixon is the bruiser. Williams has flashed his one-cut-and-go explosion. Brown used a jump cut to spring loose for a long gain Saturday.
“The approach is to grind, study, wake up and grind some more,” Dixon said. “You can’t control who the coaches put in here or there. But we all have roles. Coaches laid down what it’s going to be. Shady’s going to be the lead back and we’re all going to have a role to play.
“You never know what might happen. We’re not worried about who’s going to be here and who’s not. You can’t let that affect you.”