His return to Western New York started with so much promise, hope.
In 2014, Corey Graham signed with the Buffalo Bills and his defense finished fourth overall. He had 15 pass break-ups himself at cornerback. In 2015, as we all know, the Bills' defense lost its bite under Rex Ryan.
As one of the rare veterans on this unit — and the oldest starter in the secondary — Graham knows communication must improve in 2016. That's what plagued the back end more than anything else. Players were unsure and too quiet a year ago. Speaking at his youth football camp recently, where the safety explained just how much his old coach Willie Burnett meant to him, Graham says that the communication has been much improved in Buffalo so far.
"Those were some of our issues last year — we didn’t communicate well," Graham said. "We didn’t pick up the defense as well. Things have slowed down. Everybody knows what they’re doing. And we’ve got some new pieces in there that are looking really good. I feel like we’ll be very good. We can’t do nothing but be better than last year. We want to get back to the level where we’re elite. That’s what we’re working towards.”
To become "elite" again, a lot must go right.
Through a November/December haze, defensive backs weren't on the same page. It sure didn't help that Aaron Williams was lost for the season to a neck injury. His replacement, Bacarri Rambo, struggled, wasn't re-signed and still hasn't found a NFL home. The lack of a pass rush and lack of communication proved to be a recipe for regression. The likes of Washington's Kirk Cousins (22 of 28, 319 yards, four touchdowns) and Kansas City's Alex Smith (19 for 30, 255 yards, two touchdowns) enjoyed field days.
What went haywire? Plenty.
“That was just some people not getting exactly what we want out of the calls. Late calls," Graham said. "Things not going the way we expect it. Some people not understanding what defense we’re trying to use. Just not being on the same page to be honest with you. When they say ‘communication,’ it’s everybody not being on the same page. And that’s part of a great defense — everybody knowing exactly what they’re doing and exactly what the other person is thinking. And you’ve just got to know what the defense is trying to stop. Some defenses are called for different things. You can’t do the same thing in every defense.
"We weren’t on the same page and that starts with me. That starts for a lot of guys. We have to put in more time studying, preparing and it has definitely paid off. Guys are focused now. Guys are studying. For me, learning a defense has never been hard for me. I don’t care what the defense is. I’d like to think I’m a pretty smart guy who can pick up any defense. Rex Ryan’s defense is serious. I can pick it up. I’m not going to say I can’t. But it’s not the same for everyone and we have to make sure we’re all on the same page. And that was the problem we had.
"We were not on the same page. Right now, we are.”
One reason Graham sees brighter days ahead is the player who'll play next to him: Aaron Williams.
Williams has said himself he'll need to deliver and absorb hits in training camp before knowing if he can truly continue his NFL career after a scary neck injury in 2015. If he can go, he is easily the team's greatest off-season addition. Two safeties must work on a string in Ryan's defense and Williams was just entering his prime before the injury.
Said Graham, "Injuries matter. The whole training camp, I’m practicing with Aaron and then he gets hurt. And then you have to throw in guys. Maybe this guy, maybe that guy. It doesn’t work like that. It’s tough when you throw new guys in. It takes time. We just have to continue to work. We’re working toward that and we should be there.”
The expectation for this defense, this season? Be elite again.
“We have to be special," Graham said. "The expectation will never drop. Last year was a terrible year for us."