clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The curious case of Buffalo Bills CB Kaiir Elam

The Bills have stacked talent at defensive back — perhaps to the detriment of Elam’s development

Green Bay Packers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

Buffalo Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam enters the 2023 NFL season amid what may best be described a pivotal campaign. While true that the ensuing slate of games will mark just his sophomore effort in the NFL, there are enough people questioning why he hasn’t seemingly locked down the CB2 role yet. It’s not often NFL teams find reason to keep first-round draft picks off the gridiron.

Cornerback remains one of the most-watched battles as training camp unfolds, and it appears just as confusing as ever. Buffalo Rumblings contributing writer and podcaster Bruce Nolan has written extensively on this subject, and it’s worth revisiting his prior posts. But the interest in this battle is so intense that it merits yet another article.

Let’s revisit some recent history.

General manager Brandon Beane made Kaiir Elam a priority as a first-round talent on their big board. The front office had designs on moving up to the 22nd spot but, failing to consummate a trade with the Green Bay Packers, Brandon Beane swung a deal with the Baltimore Ravens. Beane wasn’t going to take any chances losing his guy out of the University of Florida. It became pretty obvious that the Bills had a first-round grade on cornerback Trent McDuffie — whom the Kansas City Chiefs’ drafted after trading up to the 21st spot — so Beane wasn’t going to watch another team grab Elam. Buffalo ultimately moved up two spots to bring Elam to Orchard Park, NY.

Following the pick, Beane told the media:

“I’ve been hearing it loud and clear, we don’t have a corner,” said Beane, mentioning the media, his neighbors, and his kids. “We’ll all sleep good tonight.”

Prior to drafting Elam, One Bills Drive hadn’t made the CB2 spot a true priority, instead relying on late-round gems in Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson to man the outside spot on the back end of the defense. Bolstering the team’s second cornerback with so much talent in Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Taron Johnson allowed the team such a luxury. But a sea change came about during the 2022 NFL Draft, and Buffalo doubled down in adding CB2 talent to the roster, with the additions of Elam and sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford out of Villanova. Both selections were viewed as wise with Tre White trying to return from an ACL injury suffered late in the previous season.

Bills Mafia collectively cheered at the selection of Elam, who brought a physical, press-man savviness to Buffalo’s defense. His presence would allow the Bills to become more efficient at rushing the passer, and more exotic in their schemes. The addition of Benford was praised as yet another in a likely late-round success stories for the club — a player who could at minimum provide just enough in the mold of Wallace or Jackson, though who best fit as a zone corner.

But it was Elam who most people believed was destined to be the starter due to his pedigree and superior athletic traits. Then training camp began, and the competition was hot — and those within Bills media circles began talking up Benford’s prospects. Elam needed to work on his tackling and increase his proficiency in zone.

The 2022 NFL regular-season began without White, and what ushered in was a very confusing season for Elam. When Buffalo’s defense took the field against the Los Angeles Rams, it was Christian Benford starting at CB1, opposite Dane Jackson. Elam was worked into the lineup as well, but his rotation left him as second fiddle to Benford’s first chair. Bruce Nolan noted that in Weeks 2-6, Elam’s snap count rose:

  • 66% (Week 2)
  • 100% (Week 3)
  • 99% (Week 4)
  • 100% (Week 5)
  • 76% (Week 6)

Encouraging, certainly. Except for the precipitous drop in his snap counts the rest of the regular season. Some was due to injury, enough was not.

While Elam and Benford were clearly equally important to the team, and Benford was visibly outplaying his draft status, they both found themselves often-enough injured that the dust failed to settle between their competition. But often enough, Kaiir Elam still saw fewer opportunities to play over Benford — and neither was able to unseat Dane Jackson.

One might have downplayed the situation as a rookie wall that head coach Sean McDermott seeks to avoid his players hitting. Or more likely, it had everything to do with McDermott’s penchant for making rookies earn their time on the field. But this wasn’t a rookie versus veteran situation. They were players of equal tenure, coming from very different college backgrounds and possessing markedly different skill sets and pedigrees. Elam even found himself inactive — a healthy scratch — in Week 13, following his return from injury the week prior.

In the playoffs, Elam’s play was exceptional, making two huge plays and providing stout defensive run support. The so-called rookie was hadn’t hit Elam, perhaps due to that snap count. The sky was the limit for Elam in 2023.

Then training camp began last week and Elam remained entrenched in a fierce battle for CB2 with Christian Benford and Dane Jackson. This after taking the lion’s share of snaps in both playoff games in January. We’ve been told that it’s early in camp, and competition is good for development — that reading too much into who plays when at this stage isn’t the best idea. But it all seems a bit odd, having Elam continue to fight for what appeared to be a job he’d won by last year’s NFL playoffs.

Hope remains that Elam has, indeed, won the CB2 job, and that training camp reps for the others are just that — training against top competition to prepare them for supporting roles this season. But if Elam doesn’t outright win the starting CB2 job over the next month, is there cause for alarm? Can the Bills reach their lofty goals with Dane Jackson, Christian Benford — or a second helping of platoon, featuring Elam, Benford, and Jackson?

If the reasoning behind all of this topic is due to scheme, it’s very interesting the front office made such a commitment to landing Elam. Perhaps the coaching staff’s belief is that in time Elam will rise to the top, adept as both a zone and man-cover corner; that drafting Benford was a move to solidify their options in zone while allowing Elam to develop his abilities as part of an elite, first-round prospect.

If Elam doesn’t earn the CB2 job, and isn’t on the field getting the majority of snaps in 2023, how can he possibly continue developing his skills for the NFL? At what point is it time to simply sink or swim with Elam the unquestioned starter?

If you’ve been to training camp, what have you noticed about Elam’s play and opportunity? Do you find it curious that Kaiir Elam hasn’t won the starting job yet, and do you believe it has much to do with the team’s scheme?