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Opinion: Kaiir Elam needs majority of CB2 reps, regardless of game plan

It’s time

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

When the Buffalo Bills traded up in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft to select cornerback Kaiir Elam out of the University of Florida, my social media mentions exploded.

“Congratulations Bruce!”
“Today is the day of Bruce!”
“It finally happened Bruce!”

After years of pining for a meaningful expenditure at the cornerback position opposite Tre’Davious White, I was elated when the Bills decided to do just that with their first pick in the draft. Elam profiled as an athletic cornerback with impressive long speed and ball skills that would allow Buffalo to play different coverages due to his experience in press man coming out of college.

And then he sat.
And sat.
And sat.

After playing 45% of the snaps in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams, Elam played 66, 100, 99, 100, and 76 percent of the snaps in Weeks 2-6.

Then the Green Bay Packers game came, and Elam played 58% of the snaps. Then, against the New York Jets, he played 43% of the snaps. His participation bottomed out when he participated in only 30% of snaps against the Detroit Lions, and then was a healthy scratch for the second tilt against the Jets. Elam had suffered an ankle injury in the first game against the Jets, but was still able to be active against the Lions, which prompted some “it’s just the injury; they’ve got him on a pitch count” logic from many.

But then Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News reported that a league source had informed him that Elam’s inactive status against the New England Patriots was not health-related, causing the questioning to begin. Was there a hiccup in Elam’s development? Was he struggling to grasp the concepts of Buffalo’s primarily zone-based defense after coming from a man-heavy system in college? Even the helmet scouting returned, with some noting that highly drafted recent cornerbacks from the University of Florida (C.J. Henderson, Teez Tabor, and Vernon Hargreaves) don’t have the best track record in the pros.

Not knowing what was happening in practice, I went back after the Detroit game to see if I could glean anything from his reps in that game that may have triggered an inactive status against New England. My ultimate conclusion?

I had nothing.

I was pleased with what I had seen from the Bills’ first-round rookie cornerback. If anything, I came away more encouraged after watching his snaps against Detroit than I was when I went in. And with the encouragement came no way to quell the confusion.

The coaches certainly weren’t going to come out and say what, exactly, was going on. Head coach Sean McDermott has perfected the art of opening his mouth, speaking words into the air, and having none of them actually mean anything.

And so we waited without answer.

But against the division-rival Miami Dolphins in a playoff game last week, Elam made two of the biggest plays of the game, while continuing to be sticky in coverage on non-targeted plays. He even showed impressive urgency and aggression in run support, which was a question mark for him coming out of college. Anthony Prohaska from Cover 1 outlined his big run stop here:

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on Khalil Shakir, outlining that even though I’m pleased with the contributions he’s made recently, I’m satisfied with the platoon at slot receiver — mostly because each one of the candidates (Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, and Shakir) currently brings something different to the table.

That is not the case with Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam.

Elam’s big question marks early in the season were his ability in zone, and his tackling. Both were areas where Dane Jackson was perceived to have an advantage. Jackson is in his third year in the system, and had proven reliable in run support previously, missing 6.3% and 8.0% of his tackles his first two seasons in the league. But this year, Jackson’s missed tackle rate has ballooned to 15.7% as his total snaps and run defense snaps have increased. Elam’s missed-tackle rate stands at a “better but not great” mark of 12.5%.

Elam’s important third-down interception against the Dolphins came in zone coverage, where he recognized that given the down and distance, there was no need to hesitate during his zone drop to account for a route coming underneath him. He knew he could, and should, continue to get depth in his drop in a split safety coverage, and it resulted in a game-changing interception. James Foster from A to Z Sports showed the play here:

Elam is making plays in zone. He’s making plays against the run. The area where concern about the Bills’ first-round rookie cornerback would be warranted are areas where excellence has occurred.

I’m certain there are specific coverages where Jackson is still more trustworthy than Elam. I can’t see the trust that’s formed in practice. But even for a guy known for the most lukewarm of takes, stating Elam deserves the lion’s share of snaps at cornerback might be the most boringly obvious one yet.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!