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Darby’s emergence gives Bills wiggle room in secondary

The final look at potential free agents by position heading into the NFL shopping season. This installment features the defensive backs.

By Jay Skurski

NEWS SPORTS REPORTER

The Buffalo Bills hit a home run in the 2015 draft with their selection of Ronald Darby in the second round.

By doing so, they gave themselves flexibility in the secondary. Darby had such a good season that the Bills felt comfortable releasing veteran Leodis McKelvin in a move to save salary-cap space.

McKelvin didn’t linger on the open market long – agreeing to a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday, one day before the start of free agency and the new league year.

Here is an overview of the pending unrestricted free-agent crop at both cornerback and safety, and a look at how the Buffalo Bills may approach the positions:

Cornerback starting options: Casey Hayward, Green Bay; Janoris Jenkins, L.A. Rams; Jeremy Lane, Seattle; Leon Hall, Cincinnati; Adam Jones, Cincinnati; Sean Smith, Kansas City; Prince Amukamara, New York Giants; Brandon Boykin, Pittsburgh.

The skinny: Hayward has been a versatile leader for the Packers, and it’s surprising Green Bay – a team known for retaining its own players – hasn’t reached a deal with him yet. … The Rams had to choose between Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson for the franchise tag and went with the latter. … Lane showed his value after he returned from injury when the Seahawks went 5-1 with him in the lineup. … Hall has fought back from two Achilles injuries. He is coming off a big contract and will likely be asked to fill a smaller role moving forward. He can start in a pinch, though.

Jones has overcome myriad off-the-field problems to be a trusted slot cornerback. … Smith has great size at 6-foot-3 and has broken up 53 passes over the last four seasons. … Amukamara is reportedly drawing interest from the cross-town rival Jets. … Boykin fits best in the slot. He was traded to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia.

Depth options: Marcus Cooper, Kansas City; Alan Ball, Chicago; Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets; Patrick Robinson, San Diego; Sterling Moore, Tampa Bay; Nolan Carroll, Philadelphia; Morris Claiborne, Dallas; Tracy Porter, Chicago; Coty Sensabaugh, Tennessee.

The skinny: Cooper started just one game for the Chiefs in 2015, but at 26 is the right age to draw interest on the open market. … Ball was a bust as a free-agent signing for the Bears, but could offer teams with lesser expectations decent play. … Cromartie was cut by the Jets. He’ll be 32 at the start of next season. … Robinson, a former first-round draft pick, ranked 30th out of 110 graded cornerbacks by analytics website Pro Football Focus. … Moore can play both inside and outside and was consistent last year for the Bucs.

Carroll and the Eagles have mutual interest in him returning, but there is expected to be a strong market for his services. He had 53 tackles and two interceptions in 11 games in 2015. … Claiborne is a former sixth overall draft pick who never lived up to that lofty status. He missed 24 games over the last four seasons, but his play when on the field improved to the point he should find another job quickly in free agency. … Porter had a good bounce-back season in Chicago after a lost year in Washington, breaking up 12 passes and starting 13 games. … Sensabaugh started 15 games last season, but the Titans are unlikely to re-sign him after adding Brice McCain in free agency.

Other options: Jerraud Powers, Arizona; Greg Toler, Indianapolis; Trumaine McBride, New York Giants; Ron Brooks, Buffalo; E.J. Biggers, Philadelphia; Darrin Walls, New York Jets; Mike Jenkins, Tampa Bay; Tavon Wilson; New England; Josh Robinson, Minnesota; Brandon Harris, Tennessee.

Who might fit the Bills: If Buffalo wants more veteran depth, Antonio Cromartie had his best years under Rex Ryan. He would be a natural fit. After that, the Bills could go after another second tier player if they like what they bring on special teams. That’s a role Brooks filled the last few years, but he’s not expected to re-sign.

Safety starting options: Eric Weddle, San Diego; George Iloka, Cincinnati; Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati; Walter Thurmond, Seattle; Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland; Rodney McLeod, L.A. Rams; Rashad Johnson, Arizona; Michael Griffin, Tennessee; David Bruton, Denver; Isa Abdul-Quddus, Detroit.

The skinny: Weddle is looking to sign with a Super Bowl contender and feels like he can play for another three years. … Iloka is just 25 and has 121 tackles, four interceptions and four passes defensed in the last two seasons. … Nelson, meanwhile, tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions in 2015. … Thurmond made a successful switch from cornerback to safety prior to last season. … Gipson had a down 2015 season, but the same is true of most of his Browns teammates. He’ll be looking for a long-term deal after playing on a one-year contract.

McLeod is a former undrafted free agent who played his way into being one of the top players at his position on the open market. He should get a sizable contract. … Johnson had 61 tackles and five sacks for Arizona last year. … Griffin has back-to-back 100-tackles seasons for the Titans, but was cut last month in a cost-saving move. … Bruton, 28, is looking to land a starting job after serving as a reserve for the Super Bowl champions. … Abdul-Quddus took over as a starter the second half of last season and proved capable, expanding his role beyond just that of special teams.

Depth options: Danny McCray, Dallas; James Ihedigbo, Detroit; Shiloh Keo, Denver; Brandon Meriweather, New York Giants; Antonio Allen, New York Jets; Robert Blanton, Minnesota; Louis Delmas, Miami; Dashon Goldson, Washington.

The skinny: McCray is a core special-teams member for the Cowboys, and could offer value to other teams in that job. … Ihedigbo was benched halfway through 2015 and is nearing the end of the line. … Keo was arrested for DUI last month, which could cause teams to stay away from him. … Meriweather has been suspended multiple times throughout his career and struggled with New York a year ago.

Allen missed all of last season because of a torn Achilles. … Blanton returned to a reserve role last season as questions about his fit in Mike Zimmer’s scheme popped up. … Delmas’ last two seasons have ended because of torn ACLs. … Goldson had a career-high 110 tackles last season, but was cut in a move to save salary-cap space.

Other options: Jamarca Sanford, New Orleans; Omar Bolden, Denver; Rafael Bush, New Orleans; Chris Conte, Tampa Bay; Craig Dahl, New York Giants; Jeron Johnson, Washington; Taylor Mays, Oakland; Rahim Moore, Houston; Sean Richardson, Green Bay; Brandian Ross, San Diego; Will Allen, Pittsburgh; Quintin Demps, Houston; Keith Tandy, Tampa Bay; Charles Godfrey, Atlanta; Roman Harper, Carolina.

Who might fit the Bills: With Corey Graham restructuring his contract to stay and Aaron Williams returning, Buffalo will have both of its starters back in 2016. If the Bills work out a deal with restricted free agent Bacarri Rambo, they will be unlikely to spend any more money on the position in free agency. If Rambo leaves, the Bills could sniff around for depth among the second-tier options available.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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