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With Gilmore sidelined, Darby ready for bigger role

Rex Ryan isn’t waiting for the Associated Press media panel to do the actual voting right after the NFL season. The Buffalo Bills’ coach is already crowning cornerback Ronald Darby the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Ryan said Wednesday. “It takes a rare individual to be able to go out there on the corner and especially play as much man as we do. I mean, it’s him versus whoever he’s up against, and that’s it. And yet he’s up for that challenge week in, and week out.”

Darby won’t disagree, although he does humbly add that he’s more concerned with winning than individual honors. “I just want to go to the playoffs and make it as far as we can,” he said.

And if ever there was a game the Bills needed Darby to perform up to the lofty standards he has established by setting a rookie franchise record with 19 passes defended to go along with two interceptions, Sunday’s clash with the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field is it.

Not so much because the Eagles pose an overwhelming passing threat; they rank 19th in the NFL in that category. But the Bills are likely to be without their other standout cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, who is still recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered in last Sunday’s victory against Houston.

Gilmore’s absence would figure to put a much greater load on Darby’s 21-year-old shoulders. In yet another game with huge playoff implications, the rookie believes he’s ready to handle it.

“If I have to, if that’s what’s required to do, I’m up for the challenge,” Darby said. “I just prepare. I have to prepare harder, practice a lot harder.”

Preparation always matters. Yet, through most of his first 12 NFL games, Darby has had the benefit of being mentored by Gilmore, whether it’s on the practice field, in the film room, or in games.

For the first time in his brief professional career, he won’t have that steady rock to lean on.

“He’s meant a lot,” Darby said. “He’s one of the key reasons of my success. He helped me right when I got in, technique-wise, how to study film and a lot of key things. … It’ll be a huge difference. He’s a playmaker, a game-changer.”

If Gilmore isn’t able to start, Leodis McKelvin would take his place. McKelvin had originally been expected to start before complications from surgery to repair a broken ankle he suffered last season sidelined him into the season. In the meantime, Gilmore and Darby formed one of the NFL’s top cornerback duos.

But McKelvin, who said he was the first Bills player to call Darby to congratulate him after he was drafted, is certain he can provide any veteran guidance the rookie needs. McKelvin’s first responsibility, though, is to make sure he doesn’t cause the secondary to function any differently than it does with Gilmore and Darby at cornerback.

“My job is to come in and don’t have” any letdown from “what those guys have been doing,” McKelvin said. “It’s almost like a backup quarterback job. If the starting quarterback goes down, the next guy has got to come up.”

“We’re fortunate,” Ryan said. “We have another corner with a great deal of experience in Leodis McKelvin. So I think that’ll really help us.”

Darby’s strongest competition for defensive-rookie-of-the-year honors is from Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who has five interceptions and 18 passes defended. However, as Ryan was quick to point out, Peters has allowed seven touchdown passes while Darby has given up only two, each in the last two weeks.

For Darby, the season has been all about adjusting to a faster pace on the field from what he was used to at Florida State, accepting that plays will be made against him – and getting over them quickly. He has seen his confidence steadily grow, to the point where he is more focused on making plays and less fearful about committing errors.

“I feel like there’s some ups and downs,” Darby said. “I gave up a touchdown these past two weeks. It hurts your soul. I hate doing that, because it hurts the team. I want to be lock-down, trying to have that title.

“Mistakes are going to happen, but I feel as though I’ve had a tremendous rookie year, setting a rookie franchise record,” for passes defended, a few more away from breaking the NFL rookie record. “It’s just a blessing. I couldn’t ask for much more.”