They were due, really. Draft weekends have been successive horror movies for the Buffalo Bills. Each April more gory than the last.
In 2002, the Bills took 649-pound Mike Williams (OK, more like 370) fourth overall ahead of Bryant McKinnie and John Henderson. A few cheeseburgers and lookout blocks later, Williams is out of the league. Willis McGahee seemed like a steal at the end of the first in ’03 until he wore out his welcome with each anti-Buffalo comment. In 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers snared Ben Roethlisberger two picks before the Bills and Tom Donahoe winded up traded back into the first round for J.P. Losman (losing his ’05 first-rounder in the process). In ’06, with a free shot at a franchise quarterback, Marv Levy took Donte Whitner ahead of Jay Cutler and Matt Leinart. 2007? Unless you were on vacation this past weekend, you heard about Marshawn Lynch’s annual scrape with the law.
Long story short, last year’s first round pick cannot be underestimated. The Bills finally struck gold with its first-round pick.
When New England opted for linebacker Jerod Mayo 10th overall, Leodis McKelvin trickled right into Buffalo’s lap. While he didn’t get onto the field as a regular defensive back until December, McKelvin was the team’s best weapon all year. The rookie from Troy ranked third in the NFL in kick return average (28.2 yards), giving the Bills the best average starting field position in the league.
His style will stick. McKelvin doesn’t dance. He hits lanes with an instinctive sixth sense. There’s no split-second of indecision. Many questioned whether his astronomical numbers at Troy were a product of inferior competition. Apparently not. A long stride and sudden burst are applicable on all levels. Give the Bills credit for doing their homework on McKelvin and taking this chance. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie Fever was buzzing at a tabloid-pace. DRC had the rapper acronym, the surreal genes (his cousin is Antonio Cromartie) and the jaw-dropping highlight reels --
And Buffalo opted for McKelvin.
Leodis McKelvin has the ability to break open a game on any given return.
For the third time in five seasons, the Bills’ special teams units ranked first in the Dallas Morning News’ annual special teams rankings. Of course – in the grand scheme of things – such an honor is like having your player win the sixth man of the year award in basketball or the Lady Byng in hockey. Nothing to boast too much about.
Still, it’s a facet of the game that’ll remain potent for a long time because of McKelvin. At any instant, Buffalo can get back into a game. Not many teams possess such an impromptu playmaker like McKelvin, a constant headache for clipboard-throwing coordinators. McKelvin’s not a complete revelation. Buffalo has fielded game-breaking returners in recent memory. Terrence McGee, Roscoe Parrish, Nate Clements and Jonathan Smith have all spearheaded Buffalo’s return game at one point or another.
But McKelvin is different.
The burst he showed on his 64-yard pick-six at Kansas City and 98-yard kickoff return against Cleveland suggests was unique. The latter wasn’t the typical luck-of-the-draw running lane. McKelvin needed to glide through the entire Browns coverage unit.
Watch it here. McKelvin doesn’t weave or change direction. He flat-out runs past six Browns with favorable angles, including speed demon Joshua Cribbs.
On the play, McKelvin covered 98 yards (football, not track yards) in only 13 seconds. Unheard of. Again, give the Bills credit. The cornerback’s 4.38 speed in the 40-yard applies to the football field, a distinction that’s difficult to gauge at the Combine where it’s oh-so easy to ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ like a family touring a university.
McKelvin ranked third in the NFL in kick-return average.
Most importantly, McKelvin’s instant rise allowed Terrence McGee to focus solely on cornerback. Outside of one disaster in Miami – where Ted Ginn Jr. cooked the hobbled McGee for 175 yards on seven receptions – McGee was solid. Through a nagging ankle injury, McGee drew the toughest assignments every week and played well. He finished 2008 with 66 tackles, three interceptions and 21 pass breakups.
The Bills’ front office looks very smart for not emptying its reserve fund to keep Nate Clements two years ago. Last year for San Francisco, Clements had 63 stops, two picks and nine breakups. Beyond statistics, McGee is far more reliable in coverage. The core reason for McGee’s progress? He’s fresher. With McKelvin handling kick return duties, McGee’s game is taking off.
Next year, we’ll see if McKelvin is a one-trick pony. His days as a predominant return man may be dwindling. It’ll be awfully difficult for the Bills to retain No. 2 cornerback Jabari Greer in a couple weeks when the free-agency auction begins. Odds are, Buffalo will elevate the sophomore McKelvin into a starting role and let Greer walk. Greer will draw a high market price, too high for the offensively challenged Bills to invest in.
In any event, McKelvin’s rookie season is raw proof that he must be on the field as much as possible.
Finally, Buffalo hit the lottery on draft weekend. And this one isn’t getting in trouble off the field.