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2023 NFL Combine positional review: CB targets for Buffalo Bills

There’s no way they go CB in the first round two years in a row... right?

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The 2023 NFL Combine positional review series marches on as we cover the all-important cornerback position. If you missed any of the previous articles in this series find them here:

The Buffalo Bills drafted cornerback Kaiir Elam in the first round 2022 NFL Draft with the 23rd overall pick. The Bills traded up two spots to grab Elam, sending pick number 25 (first round) and pick 130 (fourth round) to the Baltimore Ravens. Logic would tell us that after spending a first-round pick on a CB last year and a now-healthy Tre’Davious White, it’s unlikely Buffalo would use another first-round pick on a CB this year. I don’t think the team is interested in doing this, but general manager Brandon Beane often says he wants to go into the draft being able to select the best player available at their pick. If the Bills solidify other roster holes via free agency and a top-tier corner falls to them at pick 27, I wouldn’t discount Beane pulling the trigger.

Buffalo currently has Tre’Davious White, Kaiir Elam, Taron Johnson, Christian Benford, and Siran Neal locked into contracts for the 2023 season. Benford, Buffalo’s sixth-round draft pick a year ago earned his way into a starting spot at the beginning of the season for the Bills but struggled with an injury later in the year. Benford spent his time as a corner in 2022 but there are some rumors of him possibly switching to safety. Neal is primarily a special teams player who’s capable of jumping in as the “big nickel” when needed. The wild card here is Dane Jackson, who is a restricted free agent. I would imagine the Bills want to have him back on the roster in 2023, but that process will have to play out. If some other team offers more money to Jackson than the Bills are willing to spend, they might be forced to watch him leave.

My expectation is that One Bills Drive will add to their cornerback group in some capacity. If Buffalo adds a player by way of the draft, I think it would be better to invest in a pick at cornerback in the later rounds. This way Elam can showcase his first-round talent in year two, alongside former All-Pro Tre’Davious White, and Taron Johnson — who is one of the best slot corners in the league. I would look for an incoming draft pick to be a developmental project who adds special teams value from day one. Let’s look at some of the cornerback prospects I think the Bills should consider.

For reference:

  • Day 1 = Round 1
  • Day 2 = Rounds 2 & 3
  • Day 3 = Rounds 4-7

Day 1 Considerations

As I said above, I don’t think the Buffalo Bills should invest in another cornerback in Round 1 this spring. At the top of the first round, there will be top-tier cornerback talent — which is far out of reach for Buffalo and shouldn’t interest them. That is, unless one of those three corners (Christian Gonzalez, Devon Witherspoon, and Joey Porter Jr.) fall to the end of the round where Buffalo is scheduled to select. There are a few cornerbacks who are on the fringe of Round 1, but I think there will be better players available when the Bills pick — though be sure to see below for more details on those fringe players. Long story short, if it's not one of the top three corners, I don’t want it. Moving on.

Day 2 Considerations

There is a potential scenario where Buffalo trades out of Round 1 and ends up picking at the top of Round 2. In that scenario the game changes, and there are multiple cornerback prospects who I believe should go early in the round and whom I wouldn’t mind the Bills looking at (Deonte Banks, Kelee Ringo, Cam Smith). But we won’t play the “what if” game, and instead just focus on the picks the team has and what prospects I like in that range. Here are some considerations:

Clark Phillips III, CB (Utah)

The 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year was Clark Phillips III. In 2022 he had six interceptions and two of those went for touchdowns. Phillips’ production is no joke — he has nine career interceptions with four of those being returned for touchdowns. He originally was committed to Ohio St. but flipped to Utah where he became one of the best playmakers in college football.

Phillips has some things working against him though. He only measured in at 5’9” and didn’t have a particularly fast 40-yard dash (4.51 seconds). This may push him down draft boards a bit, but this shouldn’t deter the Bills. Phillips has extreme twitch movement that allows him to stay attached at the top of routes and be aggressive in his angles on the ball. He has experience playing the boundary corner but will likely be used as a nickel corner in the NFL. Phillips is a student of the game and regularly can be seen on tape anticipating routes and getting a head start on his break by reading the quarterback’s eyes. Yes, Buffalo already has a top nickel corner in Taron Johnson, but Phillips’ versatility and play-making ability will be coveted assets for any defense. The NFL continues to get smaller and faster as it evolves into a pass-first league, and players like Phillips will have a big role in defending the numerous passing threats.

Julius Brents, CB (Kansas State)

Brents is a larger-than-normal corner standing at 6’3” and just under 200 pounds — and he brings excellent length as a boundary defender. He would immediately step in as the largest defensive back on the Buffalo Bills. Brents would serve best in a zone-based scheme where he can see what is in front of him. He can mix in some man-to-man when needed but lacks the top-end speed (4.53 40-yard dash) to catch up to receivers when he’s out of position. In man-to-man, Brents is at his best when he can use his length to disrupt the route and anticipation to his advantage by having help over the top. Sometimes he gets fooled by misdirection or peeking in the backfield at the QB, which leads to some indecisiveness in zone responsibilities. Brents is a willing and disruptive run defender. The biggest quality of his game is that he’s position versatile. Brents has the attitude and play-making mindset to make the switch to safety if needed.

Day 3 Considerations

Riley Moss, CB (Iowa)

The 6’1” 197-pound senior out of Iowa has been a mainstay on the Hawkeyes’ for a long time, playing 54 games and logging 38 starts. Moss also been productive, posting 11 interceptions and 26 pass breakups. He had solid production in the Big 10 conference, which is a plus, but he also tested well at the combine.

  • 40-yard dash = 4.45 seconds
  • Vertical jump = 39”
  • Broad jump = 10’7”

The Bills have shown interest — they met with Moss at the combine. His height and weight are comparable to current Bills safety and fellow Iowa alumnus, Micah Hyde (6’0” 197 pounds). Hyde came out of Iowa as a cornerback with positional versatility to play safety, and Moss offers the same. Moss consistently finds himself in good position within zone coverage and appears to be an effective communicator with his teammates. He challenges well in man coverage and has a vertical leap to hold his own on 50/50 balls. Moss’ man-to-man coverage needs refining — he is susceptible to double moves, struggles against advanced route runners, and lacks the elite speed to make up ground. Overall, I think Buffalo would be interested in his positional versatility at corner and safety. Moss would come in to be a special teams contributor right away and have time to develop his craft as a defensive back. If he gets the right opportunity, Moss has the potential to become a starter in the NFL.

Alex Austin, CB (Oregon State)

I thought Austin was the smoothest and most fluid defensive back I watched do drills at the combine. He never looks to be “trying hard” — it just comes easy for him. Austin’s transitions from backpedal to running are seamless. He is patient in man coverage and shows elite footwork in his technique. Not only was Alex Austin a starting cornerback for the Beavers, but he also played wide receiver and returned kicks. He has good size at 6’1” and arm length 31 7/8”. His football IQ appears above average on film and Austin seems to understand defensive concepts and how it relates to what the offense is trying to do. The downside is his speed, in that he only ran a 4.55 40-yard dash. Speed issues are less important at the safety position, but they are tough to hide at corner. Austin’s exceptional footwork and maneuverability within coverages should have plenty of teams interested in giving him a chance on Day 3. I certainly like what he has to offer.

In summary

The Buffalo Bills have bigger needs on their roster other than cornerback, and I would expect them to address those holes first. I do think they need to add another player to the group but I would rather see it come in the form of an under-the-radar free-agent signing or a Day 3 draft pick. Brandon Beane has had success identifying overlooked defensive backs in the draft and head coach Sean McDermott has been able to get solid production out of them (Dane Jackson, Christian Benford, and Levi Wallace).

Stay tuned for more positional reviews, when up next we review potential safeties.