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Darby helped secondary become a primary asset

This is the eighth of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the defensive backs.

By Vic Carucci

News Sports Reporter

If there was any good news from the Bills’ woeful defense in 2015, it could be found in their secondary.

A rookie, Ronald Darby, quickly emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and a worthy candidate to become the league’s defensive rookie of the year.

A 2012 first-round draft pick, Stephon Gilmore, had the best season of his career at the other cornerback spot.

A ninth-year veteran, Corey Graham, mostly held his own after being moved from corner to safety.

The Bills also managed to do a decent job of overcoming the loss of their best safety, Aaron Williams, to a neck injury that caused him to miss most of the season. On the whole, their depth throughout the secondary proved mostly sufficient.

Whereas the majority of discussion about the defensive line and linebackers has dealt with the struggles of adjusting to a new scheme, the defensive backs seemed to actually have little trouble embracing the fact that it required them to play a great deal of man-to-man coverage.

When you play defensive back for Rex Ryan, you have to survive residing on an island. For the most part, the Bills’ DBs did. And it wasn’t as if they had a whole lot of help from the pass rush, which generated a mere 21 sacks and usually applied minimal pressure on the quarterback.

Whatever this group did, it mainly resulted from superb talent, instinct, and more poise and discipline than was generally seen in other places on a team that tied the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for most accepted penalties in the NFL with 143.

The breakdown follows:

Signed: Mario Butler, Ronald Darby, Jonathan Dowling, Stephon Gilmore, Corey Graham, Leodis McKelvin, Jonathan Meeks, Merrill Noel, Nickell Robey, Sammy Seamster, Cam Thomas, Phillip Thomas, Aaron Williams, Duke Williams.

Pending free agents: Ron Brooks, Bacarri Rambo.

What went right: Making Darby a second-round pick from Florida State and immediately inserting him as a starter.

The pick was controversial because of questions about Darby’s background stemming from the fact he was a witness in the investigation of a rape allegedly committed by his former college teammate and roommate, quarterback Jameis Winston, in 2012. Darby’s affidavit said he determined that Winston, chosen by the Buccaneers as the top overall pick of last year’s draft, and his accuser were having consensual sex, and eventually left the scene.

The Bills drew media criticism for taking a character risk on Darby. Then, after McKelvin suffered a setback in training camp from the broken ankle he suffered during the 2014 season, they were forced to sink or swim with Darby starting opposite Gilmore. At first, it looked like it would be a terrible mistake, as Darby was repeatedly embarrassed in coverage through much of the preseason.

However, as soon as the regular season began, he made those struggles and questions about his background quickly disappear. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks Darby as the fourth-best cornerback in the NFL. That’s 47 spots higher than another leading candidate for league defensive rookie of the year, Kansas City’s Marcus Peters.

Darby showed superb ability to mirror receivers and displayed the necessary body control to aggressively compete for the ball while generally being able to avoid drawing too many yellow flags. His two interceptions put him in a five-way tie for second on the team.

Gilmore led the Bills with three interceptions in the 13 games he played before suffering a season-ending injury to his left shoulder. Pro Football Focus has him as the 10th-ranked cornerback in the NFL.

Gilmore became the most consistent he has been in his four NFL seasons at providing tight coverage and showing excellent ball awareness. Having spent last season in Jim Schwartz’s defense that called for more zone coverage, Gilmore had to make a significant transition to Ryan’s man-to-man style and did so with minimal problems.

Graham’s vast experience made him a stabilizing force in the secondary, something Ryan and other Bills defensive coaches valued enough to move Graham from cornerback to safety to help make room for Darby. Graham wasn’t great. He had occasional issues in coverage and with missing tackles, but he proved serviceable and sometimes even better than that. Pro Football Focus had him as its 46th-ranked safety.

Rambo and Duke Williams did a decent job of picking up the considerable slack created by Aaron Williams’ injury. Rambo had a career game in the Bills’ 22-17 victory against the New York Jets on Nov. 12 at MetLife Stadium by forcing two fumbles and making the game-sealing interception with 17 seconds left.

What went wrong: Losing Aaron Williams to a neck injury that he suffered in the Week Two loss against New England was a major blow to the defense in general and the secondary in particular.

Even with Graham, the secondary missed Williams’ leadership. It especially missed a component vital to Ryan’s defense: his ability to communicate signals and make proper adjustments within the secondary as well as within the front seven.

In general, health issues mounted for this group as the season progressed, testing the secondary’s depth to the fullest. But it was a credit to General Manager Doug Whaley and the rest of the player-personnel staff that, by hitting on a player like Darby, a veteran such as McKelvin was available to step in as a reserve. Butler and Robey also made solid contributions.

Where they go from here: The biggest question mark hanging over the secondary is how well or even whether Williams can fully recover from his neck injury.

The real test won’t come until training camp, when pads are on and he’s able to demonstrate how well it holds up to contact. And even then, it might take a preseason game or two to determine if Williams can return to top form or anything approaching it.

If not, the Bills could have a tough decision to make with his contract, which has three seasons left and calls for his base salary to climb from $1.375 million in 2015 to $2.575 million, plus a $1-million roster bonus and $100,000 workout bonus. Williams’ cap number, including $2.425 million in prorated money, is $6.1 million.

The Bills will be hanging onto Rambo, who could wind up with a more important role to either be Williams’ full-time replacement or at least act as a bridge if the Bills use a high draft pick on a safety to be the longer-term answer.

Another issue to watch is Gilmore’s contractual status. He is entering the fifth-year option, picked up by the Bills, of his rookie contract. It calls for him to be paid $11.08 million, which is in the neighborhood of the average salaries of the NFL’s top-paid cornerbacks. However, Gilmore, who calls himself an “elite corner,” no doubt is looking a long-term contract with substantial guaranteed money.

Whether the Bills, who face salary cap challenges and will likely need to open the vault wide to retain pending free-agent tackle Cordy Glenn and pending free-agent guard Richie Incognito, can give him such a deal before the season is anyone’s guess.

Next: Special teams.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com