The most glaring need on the Buffalo Bills’ roster (at least before general manager Brandon Beane signs Joe Haden or Xavier Rhodes from out of nowhere) is at cornerback. The team’s slot situation is sorted out, with Taron Johnson signed to a long-term contract and his backup, the Swiss Army Knife Siran Neal, also signed to an extension this offseason. But at outside cornerback, questions abound. All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White is recovering from a torn ACL, and he might not be hitting his stride before midseason. The only other cornerbacks on the active roster are Dane Jackson, a 2020 seventh-round pick with eight career starts, and Cam Lewis, a former UDFA with three career starts. The team also has Olaijah Griffin and Nick McCloud from their practice squad, and signed 29-year-old Tim Harris to a contract.
So maybe the time has come for the Bills to invest another first-round pick in a cornerback. It’s a solid rookie class, with one clear-cut leader and several other promising players.
It might require Brandon Beane to call up his friend Joe Schoen with the New York Giants, who have the fifth and seventh picks in this year’s draft, but the best corner in this year’s draft probably doesn’t fall below that point.
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (Cincinnati)
Gardner was the top dog on the 12-1 Cincinnati Bearcats, who were the first Group of Five team to qualify for the College Football Playoff. Gardner famously never surrendered a touchdown in three years as a starter, while scoring two TDs himself on interception returns in 2019.
A consensus All-American in 2021, Gardner was so good that teams essentially stopped throwing to his side of the field. He has an ideal cornerback build at 6’3” and 190 lbs, with 33.5” arms (97th percentile for CBs). A 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine confirmed his athletic talent.
If the Bills think they’re “one piece away” from the Super Bowl, Gardner could be one of the elite talents at a position of importance for this team.
25th pick contenders
Derek Stingley (LSU)
Stingley has been considered one of the elite cornerback prospects ever since a consensus All-American freshman season when LSU won the championship. But 2020 and 2021 didn’t shine with the same luster, in part due to injuries. Stingley dealt with a Lisfranc injury and only played three games in 2021. Healthy for his pro day on Wednesday, Stingley confirmed his athletic ability with a 4.37 40-yard dash and a 38” vertical.
Aside from Gardner, Stingley has maybe the best chance to be drafted in the top ten picks out of this year’s cornerback group.
Andrew Booth (Clemson)
A former five-star recruit, Booth has great size for an outside cornerback. He’s sticky in man coverage, and with five INTs and nine passes defended in the last two seasons, he knows how to make a play on the ball. He already looks like a player who could start as a rookie, and it’s a safe bet that he has Pro Bowl upside. He wasn’t able to work out at the Combine because of a sports hernia that required surgery, but he should be healthy for training camp.
Kyler Gordon (Washington)
The Washington Huskies had a disappointing 4-8 season, but their dominant secondary was a highlight of 2021. Gordon, and his teammate, Trent McDuffie, could both be first-round picks in this year’s draft. Gordon’s a dynamic athlete and plays with an alpha dog attitude when he has to chase and tackle a target in the backfield. At 6’0” and 194 lbs, with 31” arms, he has sufficient size for an outside or slot cornerback.
Kaiir Elam (Florida)
Standing 6’1” and 191 lbs, and running a 4.39 40-yard dash, Elam on paper looks like a match for a starting outside cornerback. He’s the nephew of Matt Elam, a first-round pick whose NFL career was derailed by injuries and who now plays in the CFL. He had a nice 2020 season, breaking up 11 passes in 12 games as a sophomore. But 2021 wasn’t so hot, with Elam being beaten downfield for long completions or desperate penalties.
If he can grow into a better tackler and play with better technique, he has the tools to suffocate players in press or zone coverage.
Fringe first rounders
Roger McCreary (Auburn)
The 5’11” 190-lb McCreary is a feisty press corner with a knack for finding the ball. In 22 games from 2020 to 2021, he had 20 passes defended, five interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. McCreary also notched nine TFLs as an aggressive downhill tackler.
The potential downside with McCreary is his small size. His arm length (28 7/8”) measured in the zero percentile of cornerbacks in the last 24 years—and that’s not a typo. Although there are a few hits with cornerbacks who have sub-30” arms (Donte Jackson, Quandre Diggs, Nickell Robey-Coleman), it’s rare, and these kinds of players are usually relegated to the slot.
Trent McDuffie (Washington)
McDuffie, like his teammate Gordon, has sufficient athletic ability to play inside or outside, and is highly competitive on and off the field. Where McDuffie differs is that he’s more polished than Gordon, but he’s less lengthy. Like McCreary, McDuffie’s arms might be too short for some teams’ preferences, although it’s not all bad. With 29 3/4” arms, he falls just barely below the desirable threshold. So his talent could make up the difference.
Pick from out of nowhere
Tariq Woolen (UTSA)
Credit goes to Joe Marino for asking the question in a recent mock draft, of why the Buffalo Bills wouldn’t just bet on another hyper-athletic project player like Woolen. The physical tools would make the late Al Davis blush: a 6’4” 205 lb defensive back with 33 5/8” arms, who ran a 4.26 40-yard dash and had a 42” vertical leap at the Combine.
Now the catch here is that Woolen was a wide receiver for his first three seasons in San Antonio. He converted to cornerback in 2020 and held his own for two years as a starter. His Senior Bowl experience went well. Overall, Woolen could potentially be an impact outside cornerback or even safety, but it’s not happening in year one.