Corey Graham knew the deal as soon as he was drafted by the Chicago Bears.
Defensive backs tackled in Chicago’s Cover Two system. If Graham didn’t like it, his professional career would be in peril.
“I had to have my big-boy pants on every week,” he said. “That’s just what it was.”
Even though he was less than 190 pounds coming out of college, Graham never shied away from the contact. His second year with the Bears, he made 91 tackles, which remains a career best after eight seasons in the NFL.
So as Graham prepares to shift from cornerback to safety full time in his second season with the Buffalo Bills, he’s got no worries about holding up physically at the position.
“I’ve done it for years in the NFL already,” he said. “I’ve played the extra safety position in goal line before. I’ve gone up against tight ends. I’ve had to hold up in the run game, so it’s really nothing new to me.”
Graham dabbled at both positions last summer, and even played some safety during the season, but it’s different this year.
“I knew they were serious about it once they told me they wanted me to play safety only,” he said. “I knew it was real then. It’s been fun, to be honest with you. I’m looking forward to it. It’s like starting all over again, learning a new position, the nuances of it and all that. It’s like I’m a rookie all over again. So I’m excited about it. I want to see where it can take me.”
Graham admitted that he had some hesitancy about changing positions because of his experience last year. One day, he’d practice with the cornerbacks, and the next at safety.
“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. ”I did say, ‘If you’re going to do it, let’s do it for real, so I can really learn the position, learn how to play it the right way, and go about it the right way.’ It’s been coming along well. I’m picking things up, I’m starting to really learn our defense and I’m really starting to like it.”
Graham proved to be a valuable addition to his hometown team last season, starting nine games and playing in all 16, making 84 tackles and breaking up 19 passes to go along with two interceptions.
“Most people would be like, why would you switch when you’re good at a position already?” he said. “But you’ve got to do what’s best for the team.”
It’s not entirely unheard of, either.
Graham’s NFL idol is Charles Woodson, who started his career at cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, eventually switched to safety and amazingly is now entering his 18th season.
“Most corners at some point in their career, you’re moving to safety if you’ve got any size to you,” Graham said. “As corners, we all know that. I could have told you four or five years ago that I knew I was going to play safety at some point. … It’s not something that I could say I didn’t see coming. … It can extend your career. You just want to play, you want to do whatever you can to help the team. At some point you might have to sacrifice a little bit, but in the long run it can be better.”
Graham is listed at 196 pounds on the team’s roster, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play about 10 pounds heavier.
“I’m glad we gave him that chance to adjust before training camp,” defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson said. “He gets his feet in the mud, so to speak. … His athleticism shows up as a displaced corner, really. You don’t have to worry about making a lot of substitutions when you’ve got three legitimate corners on the field.”
The Bills gave themselves some insurance at cornerback when they drafted Florida State’s Ronald Darby in the second round. That gives them the flexibility to move Graham, with the intention of creating added competition for the starting safety job next to Aaron Williams.
“It’s not surprising that he’s really taken to it,” coach Rex Ryan said of Graham’s move. “He’s smart, and I think that’s obviously the prerequisite of that position.”
Graham’s move means the Bills will have competition for a starting safety job for the second straight training camp. Last year, Da’Norris Searcy beat out Duke Williams. Searcy, however, signed as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans this offseason.
Williams is back, though, and has plenty of motivation to prove he’s ready for the starting role this year.
“I’m happy they moved him there,” Williams said of Graham joining him at safety. “It’s a good opportunity for me to show what I can do.”
Despite losing out on the starting job, Williams still played 49 percent of the defensive snaps in 2014, when he started four games and made 52 tackles with one interception and one forced fumble.
“I got a good amount of reps and got my exposure,” Williams said. “It’s great when you’ve got two or three guys who can be a starter. That shows you how talented the back end of our defense is. We’re fortunate to have guys who can compete to be starters in this league. I’m excited for the competition when we get the pads on and get to play real football. That’s when you’ve got to turn it on.”
Aaron Williams sat out most of spring practices because of injury, which opened up playing time for other young safeties like Jonathan Meeks and Bacarri Rambo.
So while the competition has mostly been thought to be between Graham and Duke Williams, Henderson cautioned not to count out the others.
“One thing about competition – it’s going to make you work,” he said. “Rambo’s right in that fire. Meeks, too. Those young guys who haven’t had a lot of reps, they got to play a lot more.”
“I think all those guys have had some real positive plays, but we still have got to get better as we go,” Ryan said, “before I’m real comfortable with any guy really taking over.”