Eyebrows were raised when the Buffalo Bills gave cornerback Leodis McKelvin a $4.25 million-a-year contract in March.
Yes, he was great returning punts, but he had been yanked in and out of the defensive starting lineup each of the previous two seasons.
Entering Sunday’s home finale against Miami, McKelvin has put together the finest season of his six-year career and justified the contract.
“He has re-established himself this year,” said Bills defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson. “Although he doesn’t have any interceptions, if you go look at the stats, the guys that have been targeted that he’s covering, they might catch one or two a game.”
“I feel like it ain’t surprising to me,” McKelvin said. “I feel that’s how it’s supposed to have been going on. I’m just starting to stay on top of my game and do what I need to do.”
McKelvin has a team-high 16 pass breakups this year and needs just one more to have the most by any Bills player in the last five years. He has allowed only two touchdown passes all season, both in the Cincinnati game in Week Six.
McKelvin’s solid play is one of many factors that have helped the Bills rank sixth best in the NFL in passing yards allowed.
The new Bills’ coaching staff saw in McKelvin all the athleticism necessary to succeed. Where McKelvin has improved is in making plays on balls in the air, especially deeper sideline patterns.
“I think the major thing that really concerned him last year was him not being able to play the ball,” Henderson said. “We call it taking peanuts off your head.”
“The only thing he wanted to fix on me was really truly getting my head back around for the ball and play for the ball,” McKelvin said. “As we all know in previous years of me being here, I had a problem as far as going up and getting the ball; losing those downfield battles. … He worked on things like getting my head around once I know he’s going for a deep route and looking for the ball. He put a lot of emphasis on it.”
Henderson said he put McKelvin through “a lot of drills” in the offseason and preseason. McKelvin also is playing with more confidence.
“You have to be comfortable at the line of scrimmage, No. 1, that you’re not just playing defense the whole time,” Henderson said. “When you play defensive back, you’re always taught to look at the receiver, look at the receiver. What I’ve tried to make him do is look at the receiver at the line of scrimmage, and once you know you’ve got him, you become the receiver. Meaning, you’ve got to get your head back around. Both corners have learned how to do it pretty well.”
McKelvin, 28, was the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. Did the Bills yank him from the lineup too quickly in the past? Perhaps.
“Let’s be honest, when you’re a No. 1-drafted corner, you’ve got to be able to do those things,” Henderson said. “That’s the nature of the business. You’re a No. 1, you’ve got to play like a No. 1. Like I told him, ‘Those five years that you had, erase them. Let’s go ahead and learn how to do some things differently to make your game better for as long as you’re here.’ ”
“I’ve said he’s kind of been under the radar a little bit and has put together a string of very good football games,” coach Doug Marrone said.
Marrone said McKelvin’s improvement has come despite being asked to play more man-to-man coverage than in the past.
“I think it’s a process and how he’s been doing things during the week,” Marrone said. “He’s worked extremely hard. I think he’s been playing extremely well and at a high level.”
In the final minutes in Jacksonville last week, McKelvin made a key pass breakup in the end zone to save a touchdown on the play before Stephon Gilmore made an end-zone interception.
Every week, however, is a challenge for cornerbacks. McKelvin will face Miami deep threat Mike Wallace some of the time on Sunday.
“He’s a guy who can always go deep,” he said. “You always got to worry about him scoring at any given time, as far as his speed.”
McKelvin and Wallace got into some shoving matches during the first meeting between the teams in October.
“He’s one of those extracurricular guys, as far as when he catches the ball he wants to pump himself up, but not on the level of Steve Smith,” McKelvin said, referring to Carolina’s talkative star receiver. “But it’s fun. I love playing against guys like that. … He’s going to talk trash and go back and forth.”
Miami’s top cornerback, Brent Grimes, is expected to play Sunday despite missing two days of practice due to a sore groin. Grimes practiced on a limited basis Friday and is listed as probable.
The only Dolphins player listed as questionable is No. 2 running back Daniel Thomas (ankle).
Marrone said safety Aaron Williams, receiver Stevie Johnson and quarterback EJ Manuel all are out. Williams has sore ribs. Johnson is excused due to the recent death of his mother. Manuel did not practice on his sore knee Friday.