Last offseason, the Buffalo Bills signed Corey Graham to a four-year deal worth $16.3 million, citing his special teams prowess and veteran leadership as the primary reasons behind the acquisition. While he proved to be valuable on special teams (he recorded five tackles kick/punt coverage) and was named a team captain, Graham was also quietly one of the top cornerbacks in the National Football League. ProFootballFocus’ graded him as the #8 overall cornerback in 2014, as his 31 receptions allowed were the second fewest among 70 cornerbacks that played at least 50% of their team’s defensive snaps. His 48.4% completion percentage allowed was fourth-best, while the 344 yards he surrendered was the third-fewest at his position. He added 15 pass breakups, the third highest total in the league.
With Rex Ryan now calling the shots as Head Coach of the Bills, Graham has been spending his time at safety, where his instincts, sound tackling, and man-cover skills are better suited for his scheme that asks a lot out of cornerbacks.
While many fans will question the decision to ask an effective veteran to switch positions, Graham simply lacks the quick twitch-iness and change-of-direction ability that press cornerbacks must possess in order to play effective “bump and run” coverage. Now, Graham will have the opportunity to showcase his instincts and playmaking ability while keeping things in front of him.
The safety position isn’t totally foreign to Graham, who spent some time there in 2014. While he doesn’t have the range of upper-echelon safeties like Earl Thomas or Tashaun Gipson, he makes up for it by anticipating routes developing and congesting passing lanes. In the following clip against the Patriots, the Bills give a two-high look with Graham and Duke Williams as the deep safeties. Tom Brady motions a receiver out wide and Williams follows him, which shows the Patriots that the Bills are playing “Cover 1.” This is man coverage with one deep safety (Graham) that’s responsible for defending the deep middle and preventing anything from getting behind him. Rob Gronkowski runs a slant over the middle and has Stephon Gilmore beat, but Graham is able to come up and make the tackle, preventing a potentially big gain.
In addition to playing “centerfield” safety against crossing routes, Graham proved to be a reliable tackler, particularly in space. Graham missed just four tackles in 2014, tied for the third-fewest among cornerbacks that played at least 60% of their team’s defensive snaps.
In the following play, Graham sniffs out a swing pass against the Patriots and makes the tackle from the safety position.
Against the Bears, Graham wraps up Brandon Marshall immediately after a screen pass.
He’s physical for the cornerback position, as he shows in the following play against the Bears in a crucial situation in the fourth quarter. Jay Cutler’s pass is intended for Josh Morgan, who leaps to make the reception, but Graham delivers a blow that dislodges the ball and sends Morgan onto the sidelines for an incompletion.
Ball Skills/ Coverage Ability
While Corey Graham has only recorded 12 interceptions in his eight years in the National Football League, he’s broken up 35 passes over the past three seasons. Graham routinely shows an understanding of leverage and the importance of body positioning when defending receivers and seems to always find a way to stay inside his man. Against the Denver Broncos, Graham is defending Emmanuel Sanders, one of the faster wideouts in the league. Sanders runs a deep post and has a step on Graham, but a slightly underthrown ball by Peyton Manning allows him to cross Sanders’ face and step in front of him to make an impressive interception.
Graham makes another impressive play against the Dolphins on the same route, this time against Mike Wallace. As Wallace breaks inside, Graham stays on top of him before getting in front and breaking up the pass.
With the ever-growing emphasis on the passing game in today’s NFL, nickel and dime defensive packages are turning into “base” groupings. Teams are drafting nickel cornerbacks higher than ever, and corners that don’t have the best agility are finding success at safety. Both safety positions are becoming interchangeable, as spread offenses take advantage of old-school strong safeties that primarily play in the box.
Having a defender like Corey Graham—who has great instincts, length, physicality and cover skills– is a luxury. His versatility to play both safety and cornerback makes him a valuable asset to Buffalo’s defense. Regardless of whether he’s labeled a “free” or “strong” safety, Graham has the ability to play centerfield in single-high looks, as well as the skills to walk down and play man coverage against slot receivers. He’s active in the run game, and the move to safety could prolong his career by maximizing his athletic abilities.