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Cornerback or safety for Bills at 10? History suggests you think again

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Posted at 10:19 AM, Apr 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-25 10:25:19-04

As they head into the start of the 2017 NFL Draft on Thursday, the Buffalo Bills have plenty of needs to try to address with their roster. You can go right down the line of positions:

Quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, right tackle, defensive line depth, weakside linebacker, cornerback, and safety. It’s quite the laundry list, and especially seeing as how they only have seven picks to operate with, it’s especially an interesting process for them to try and attack all those needs.

Over the past few months, a popular pick for the Bills of mock drafts from all across the country at number 10 has been a player preceded with the letters ‘CB’ or ’S.’

Whether it be Marshon Lattimore, Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, Marlon Humphrey, or anyone else, we’ve seen quite a bit of cornerbacks and safeties mentioned. And you can certainly make a case why it’s a need.

The Bills will be switching to a zone-based defensive scheme for their cornerbacks, and you really don’t have to look further than the draft class of the Carolina Panthers in 2016 as to what Sean McDermott values in his cornerbacks.

In the second and third round, the Panthers selected cornerbacks. The second-round pick, James Bradberry out of Samford, and in the third, Daryl Worley of West Virginia.

Both players were long-limbed, they didn’t run necessarily well in the 40-yard dash, but they’re much better tacklers than the majority of the other cornerbacks available in the draft. McDermott just values different things than man-cover teams, which is fine considering his success.

However, the two current starters — Ronald Darby and Kevon Seymour — are short-armed and have mostly played a man-based coverage scheme. You could work yourself into thinking that the Bills would target a cornerback in the first round.

Heck, even a safety, too… something to give them flexibility in the secondary with the newly signed Micah Hyde. A lot of fans have been hoping that either Adams or Hooker fall down to 10th overall.

The bigger question is this: Would the Bills even pull the trigger on a cornerback or a safety at 10th overall?

If you look at every draft that Sean McDermott has been a part of, history significantly flies in the face of a defensive back being the pick at 10th overall.

McDermott first cracked into the league in the scouting department with Philadelphia in 1999, before promptly becoming the late, great Jim Johnson’s protege… a fresh 18 years ago. Nearly two decades of drafts to judge from — and over all 18 years, it’s either been Johnson or McDermott in charge of the defense. He was in Philadelphia through 2010, and then in Carolina as defensive coordinator from 2011 through 2016.

In those 18 years of drafts between the Eagles and Panthers, there was a total of 25 defensive backs selected. Out of the 25, 13 were cornerbacks and 12 were safeties.

Out of 25 defensive backs over the last 18 years, how many were a first round pick?

One.

Lito Sheppard, who was taken 26th overall by the Eagles in 2002, was the only defensive back selected in the first round since McDermott has been a part of the NFL. And to be fair, the Eagles didn’t have a first-round pick for two of those years, so it’s once out of 16 drafts.

Even still, you have to admit, there’s a pretty clear indicator that defensive backs aren’t looked at the same way as other positions are in the draft -- or even as some other teams around the NFL look at them.

Bills fans have grown fairly accustomed to the notion of taking defensive backs in the first round, seeing as how it’s happened five times since 1999. Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, Donte Whitner, Leodis McKelvin, and Stephon Gilmore — two of which were top 10 selections and McKelvin missed the Top 10 by one spot (11th overall).

That’s not to say that McDermott devalues the importance of having good cornerback play on his defense, but what it does is prove is that the vital part of his defense is all in the front seven -- and getting pressure on the quarterback organically to let his zone scheme take hold and force some takeaways.

Over those 18 years, the Eagles and Panthers have taken a member of the defensive front seven — defensive end, defensive tackle, or linebacker — nine times out of 18 years. And again, since they didn’t have a first-round pick in Philadelphia for a couple of seasons, that’s nine out of 16 drafts that they’ve taken a member of the front-seven in the first round.

Just to drive the point home… a whopping 56-percent of the time, those teams have taken a defensive end, defensive tackle, or linebacker in the first round.

As top 10 picks go, the Eagles/Panthers have only had four out of those 18 years. Two were used on quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton), and the other two? You guessed it. Front seven players — defensive tackle Corey Simon (2000) and linebacker Luke Kuechly (2012) were the other two.

So while there are tempting players likely to be available at defensive back at 10th overall — especially ones that have the things that McDermott seems to value in his cornerbacks — the success of defenses that the Bills new head coach has been a part of throughout the last two decades have largely gotten by without the notion of selecting a first round defensive back.

It doesn't completely rule it out because there are always special cases to be made within the NFL Draft, and just because it hasn't happened before in the top 10 doesn't necessarily mean that it won't. But, there is a clear as day trend -- and we would be wise to not ignore it.

The value is clearly in the front seven, so as Sean McDermott looks to rebuild this defense and roster, you could make a pretty good case that he wants to go back to his roots and build from the front out — no matter what is already on the roster.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia