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Cornerbacks highlight Buffalo Bills AP Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates

Two corners are standouts as rookies

One of the only Buffalo Bills training camp battles still taking place is at the starting cornerback position opposite of star Tre’Davious White. Even then, the Bills may need two names with very little starting experience to step up. If White is not yet ready to return Week 1 following an ACL tear he suffered against the New Orleans Saints during their Thanksgiving game in 2021, two rookies are in a prime spot for a large number of snaps. If the Bills are hoping to have an AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2022, it’s likely coming from the cornerback position.

A pair of talented rookies in first-round pick Kaiir Elam (Florida) and sixth-rounder Christian Benford (Villanova) are two players to keep an eye on throughout the season. Both are battling toe-to-toe with third-year pro Dane Jackson (a former seventh-round selection) for the No. 2 cornerback spot. Jackson was a healthy inactive for the first week of the preseason against the Indianapolis Colts along with the rest of the projected starters, which may point to him having the inside track for Week 1. However, the two rookies proved their worth and punctuated the point that this battle is long from over. Elam and Benford made pretty pass breakups early against the Colts’ projected starters. The first-rounder got his arm in the passing lane against fellow rookie Alec Pierce on a third-down, while Benford did the same in front of star receiver Michael Pittman Jr. on a fourth-down play. Benford made a couple of solid tackles as the game wore on, and Elam showed off his athleticism as a strong asset in man coverage despite being flagged for pass interference once.

Those weren’t the only rookie draft picks making plays. Third-round linebacker Terrel Bernard picked up a bouncing ball off a strip sack for a 70-yard scoop-and-score in the middle of the second quarter. He’s likely to have a role this year. But—barring injury—he won’t be afforded enough snaps on defense to make a dent on any AP Defensive Rookie of the Year hopes. Seventh-rounder Baylon Spector out of Clemson also made quite an impact. He had ten tackles on the day and showed off his athleticism to get into passing lanes on multiple occasions. He’s firmly on the roster bubble, but his performance Saturday was an encouraging one. The rookies have been bringing the goods, but their chances of playing time remain foggy. Elam, Benford, and Bernard are the biggest players for rookie playing time in 2022 so let’s weigh their outlook for AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Kaiir Elam

Elam should be considered the favorite in the clubhouse if any Bills player is going to receive a rookie of the year award in 2022. The investment in him by general manager Brandon Beane (first round) is the most significant of the group, and Elam is competing at the only starting position where a rookie could start. He’s had an up-and-down camp as the Bills have reportedly purposely challenged him in ways to make him uncomfortable as he lined up in plenty of off-man and soft zones in training camp. Elam has struggled in some areas like these as well as being grabby with receivers in coverage. A bounce-back performance in in the first preseason game showed off everything the Bills were hoping to get out of the talented prospect. Only two corners have won the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award this millennium (Marcus Peters in 2015 and Marshon Lattimore in 2017). The odds aren’t in his favor, but a big year of interceptions and overall ball production could allow for Elam to be in a decent spot at the end of the year.

Christian Benford

Benford has earned first-team reps in camp for the last couple of weeks and has seemingly taken advantage of them. As mentioned earlier, he’s also a player who took advantage in the first preseason game lining up with Elam and balling out against Pittman Jr. He’s long and physical like Elam. He lacks the top-end athleticism of the first-rounder, but he’s more than serviceable in that regard. Bills sideline television analyst Cynthia Frelund received texts by multiple NFL executives about Benford’s status on the team as they took in his performance.

Benford is a sixth-round pick and he still likely has the lowest chance of starting between Jackson, Elam, and himself. However, he’s showing out in camp and it hasn’t taken him long to acclimate to the NFL game while coming from FCS school Villanova. He should be viewed as a roster lock and still in the thick of the starting corner race. He won’t win defensive rookie of the year, but Bills fans should be very excited about the development of Benford for years to come.

Terrel Bernard

Yes, the sixth-round pick ranks higher than the third-rounder for this exercise. But that doesn’t mean the rookie out of Baylor hasn’t shown ability throughout training camp. He’s flashed in coverage against speedy rookie James Cook and the Bills’ tight ends in practices. Against Indianapolis, he made a splash play with his scoop-and-score touchdown while also falling victim to guarding athletic Colts tight end Kylen Granson in open space. The Bills love to play three corners and have two strong starters in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. But the team made an investment in Bernard so it’s safe to say we’ll see him with the defense in the regular season at one point or another. He received the start at MIKE linebacker in the first preseason game, which highlights his abilities to play in that role, at WILL linebacker, or as an overhang player given the opportunity to blitz and play in space in coverage if head coach Sean McDermott wants to use a jumbo base 4-3 lineup. It’s safe to say Bernard isn’t a true threat for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award. But he certainly has a role with the Bills in 2022.