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Bills rookies Kaiir Elam, Terrel Bernard struggle in loss to Jets

Elam stumbles in coverage; Bernard doesn’t trust his eyes

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills’ most disappointing performance since the 2021 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars came in Week 9 against the New York Jets. The Bills dropped to 6-2 on the season after stalling against the to the Jets. Despite looking like the best team in football over the first eight games, Buffalo was clearly humbled in a big way by a young and hungry Jets team looking to make a statement. The Bills are now 0-2 in the division, with the entirety of the AFC East being above the .500 mark.

The team’s rookies were once again thrust into fair-sized roles due to the mounting injuries on defense in this contest, and this time, things didn’t work out in Buffalo’s favor.

Kaiir Elam, cornerback

It wasn’t all bad for Elam, but this wasn’t his best outing as a rookie. He started the game opposite veteran Dane Jackson, and had received most of the snaps in the role before injuring his ankle in the second half. Elam did return to the game when Jackson was briefly injured.

Elam had one of his worst moments on the season when rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson ran a speed out. Elam was slow to process and late to stop the play in its tracks. That gave Wilson enough time to put a move on Elam—sensing his presence—to make Elam fly by as he grabbed air. Wilson converted for a first down on the play.

Elam ended up playing less than 50% of the snaps in Week 9. He did have one stand-out play against receiver Denzel Mims on a vertical route. Elam stayed step-for-step and forced quarterback Zach Wilson to make a perfect throw.

James Cook, running back

Cook is slowly chiseling away at snaps as the season chugs along. He had a 23% snap share (14 snaps) on Sunday. When Cook touches the ball, it just feels a little bit different compared to what veteran Devin Singletary does on a play. Cook brings some juice to the offense, and has shown more effort to get hidden yards in recent weeks. That was not part of his scouting report as a prospect, but showing that ability is encouraging for a lot of reasons.

Cook continues to be a mismatch for linebackers. The addition of running back Nyheim Hines could potentially throw a wrench into Cook’s ascent this season. If it were me, Singletary would continue to see his snaps even out with the likes of Cook and Hines as weeks go on. The rookie has really bounced back from a rough early start. He just needs more opportunities.

Terrel Bernard, linebacker

There were more bad plays than good ones in the case of the rookie third-rounder, who had the very first start of his career on Sunday with starter Matt Milano ruled out with an oblique injury. Bernard played all but one snap on the defensive side of the ball.

Bernard was plagued by being fooled by jet action. The Jets purposely exposed him in that area on at least a couple of occasions. On one play, Bernard was attempting to communicate with Mike linebacker Tremaine Edmunds as the jet motion occured. As the split zone run was called, Bernard hesitated for just a moment as the tight end pulled to the back side of the play. That allowed running back James Robinson to gain additional yardage while Bernard froze and processed what he saw.

Bernard has pursuit ability and is still learning the intricacies of playing linebacker in the NFL. His first start showed the ups and downs you’d expect while facing a Shanahan running scheme.

Khalil Shakir, wide receiver

It was a disappointing outcome for the rookie fifth-round pick, who saw his punt return duties snatched from his grasp by the aforementioned Hines. Shakir had done everything you could hope for from a rookie assuming that duty. Additionally, Shakir only played nine offensive snaps on the day and was a victim of a bad miss by quarterback Josh Allen in this game. Shakir ran a dig, and Allen simply appeared to miss him badly.

The recent unimpressive play of wide receiver Gabe Davis and the small impact of receiver Isaiah McKenzie as a full-time slot option has raised some questions about Shakir. There’s been very little sample size, but what’s there has proven to be quality from him.

Christian Benford, cornerback

Benford was quiet in this game. We talk often about how quiet cornerback play is a good thing. Benford was pushed into even more snaps with the dings picked up by Elam and Jackson in this contest. Benford does a lot of nice things in passing off zone coverage. That awareness, along with his aggressive nature for the physical side of the game, is why some thought the sixth-rounder could eventually transition to safety in the NFL.

Benford has a good rapport in the organization and will be thought of highly. It seems likely he will be the odd man out in 2022 when Tre’Davious White returns to full health. However, Elam and Jackson stacking more performances like this past week could quickly return him to action.

Baylon Spector, linebacker

He has an inconsistent role on special teams as a rookie. It’s expected. Spector remains an afterthought in much of the Bills’ on-field plans for 2022.