The roles have reversed for Ronald Darby.
Just a couple years ago at this time, he was in his first month or so on a new job as a rookie cornerback for the Buffalo Bills. Now, just two years later, he’s the elder statesman. Amazingly enough, Darby is the longest-tenured cornerback on the Bills’ roster, despite being just 23 and entering his third season.
“You know, I feel like a veteran in the secondary,” Darby said. “We got a lot of new guys and young guys, so I feel like … I have a huge role here.”
That would be an accurate assessment. Darby will be stepping into the No. 1 cornerback role vacated when Stephon Gilmore signed with the New England Patriots.
Darby leaned on Gilmore heavily at the start of his professional career.
“Stephon, he’s a blessed dude. Hard worker,” Darby said. “I learned a lot from him and I'm just going to carry that on. He’s like a true big brother. He's a really quiet dude until he opens up to you. Always here on time, his eating habits, his film study – we're just sitting in the locker room and he's on his iPad, looking at film, looking at film – he's just real driven, and it paid off. You see what he got.”
After spending a first-round draft pick on cornerback Tre’Davious White, the Bills need that same type of leadership from Darby.
“Yeah, I'm going to be there to help him,” Darby confirmed. “He came into a great system. We mix it up a lot here, so he'll be able to make a lot of plays. It ain't just press man, one-on-one. Whatever he needs – him, Kevon Seymour, anybody – I'm always there to help.”
It’s easy to understand how Darby might have been disillusioned by the Bills’ scheme last season. He excelled as a rookie – starting 15 games and making 68 tackles, a whopping 21 passes defensed and two interceptions, earning Pro Football Focus’ Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The analytics website graded him as the fourth-best cornerback in the NFL in 2015.
Darby’s sophomore season didn’t build on the promise of his rookie year, though. While he started almost the exact same number of games (14) and had nearly identical tackles (69), his passes defensed dipped to 12 and his overall grade, according to PFF, was 66th among all cornerbacks.
"Last year I dropped about four or five picks, so you know, my season wouldn’t have been that horrible if I caught those,” he said. “That's one thing I'm going to stress this whole offseason is finishing on the play. Last year, I only gave up two touchdowns. I gave up a few deep balls on cover zeroes and stuff like that. But my main thing is just finishing. If I would have came down with even three of those, it wouldn’t have been bad. … So that's my main thing, working on my hands.”
The Bills are banking on Darby putting his sophomore slump behind him.
“When I evaluated Darby in college, I saw the ability, and then I watched his first year from afar, albeit, and the impact he had as a first year player, and then I watched him on tape last year once I got into the building,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “I’m really seeing a player that’s ready to get back to, to playing the way he did his first year; And really, taking his game to another level, and that’s, that deals with preparation, consistency, understanding the game a little bit more as you, as we all gain experience, with experience comes awareness.
‘That’s really the next step for him. I love the way he’s taking, has taken a mindset, an approach, an attitude of buying into the system and what we’re asking our corners to do. The big part of that for us which I love, that I believe he inherently has, we believe he inherently has is the physical approach, that we ask our corners to tackle. That goes a long way.”
The analytics would seem to back that up, too. Darby ranked as PFF’s second-best cornerback in run support in what was an otherwise down 2016.
“You know, it's on to a new year,” he said. “I could have had the best year last year and had a horrible year this year. You've just got to leave that behind and move on.”
PFF recently named Darby one of the top three cornerbacks in the NFL under 25, joining Kansas City’s Marcus Peters and Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey.
“In 2015, Darby came in and immediately started for the Bills and as a rookie, earned an incredible 86.1 overall grade — the third-highest PFF overall grade ever for a rookie cornerback. While 2016 was certainly a step back, he at least maintained a strong performance defending the run, and was far from alone in regressing in a Bills’ defense that capitulated over the season,” the article’s author, Brett Whitefield, wrote. “Darby’s ability showed that he can play at elite levels from day one, earned him the selection here over his competition.”