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Explain both sides: Will Kaiir Elam lock down CB2 job for Buffalo Bills?

The conversation itself is confusing

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

If you ascribe to the multiverse theory, then in at least one of the infinite number of parallel universes, the Buffalo Bills have won at least one Super Bowl. They’ve held the Lombardi high and celebrated with their fans. They’ve gotten the monkey off their back.

But the universe we live in today hasn’t had that event yet. The Bills in our universe are still pursuing their first Super Bowl championship. The good news is that this also means there’s a universe where any number of yet-unsure futures have come to fruition in the Bills’ favor.

In this series of articles, I’m going to take both sides of a stance related to a potential future event with the team and explain both why it could happen and also why it may not. Both arguments will likely contain statements strongly worded because I am, in essence, debating against myself and meaningful delineations must be made between the two sides. As with most things in life, the answer will likely lie between the two arguments, but they will sit on clearly opposite poles to draw a clear distinction and to allow conversation to be had between the two established boundaries.

Today’s topic is 2022 Buffalo Bills first round pick Kaiir Elam.

Will he be “the answer” at CB2 that Bills Mafia has been clamoring for since the beginning of the McBeane regime?

The argument against:

When the Bills selected a long, athletic cornerback in the first round of the NFL Draft, the assumption by many was that the long-standing disappointment in the CB2 spot for a chunk of Buffalo fans was at its end. The Levi Wallaces and Dane Jacksons of the world represented perfectly passable, albeit limited, options on the outside opposite Tre’Davious White. But Elam represented a new style of player at CB2: an athletic, press-man corner who would allow the Bills to play different coverages with more ease and help elevate the pass defense.

And then the Bills drafted Christian Benford two days later.

Nobody thought much of it at first, aside from the idea that Benford was another in the Wallace/Jackson mold. He’s a zone corner with below-average change-of-direction skills to correlate to man coverage, and average to below-average speed and explosion.

But this is where the first misconception occurred. Benford is a markedly superior athlete to both Jackson and Wallace. His late-round status may have hidden this, but he’s bigger and faster than both of his CB2 predecessors. And with a ton of ball production in college (13 interceptions, 29 pass breakups), he was always a different threat stylistically to the job than either Jackson or Wallace.

When the 2022 season started, Benford, not Elam, was the opening-snap starter at the second cornerback spot for the Buffalo Bills against the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Benford played 58% of the defensive snaps that game, while Elam played 45%. Dane Jackson occupied the other cornerback spot. They did this via rotation by drive.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott said that they would “continue to evaluate” the position and that “matchups” might play a role in determining what actions they would take moving forward.

What they actually did moving forward was continue to platoon Elam and Benford. Given the Bills’ terrible injury luck in 2022, one might forget that Dane Jackson was taken off the field in an ambulance during Buffalo’s 41-7 stomping of the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football in Week 2. Fortunately, Jackson only missed one game before returning to full-time duty in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Tre’Davious White didn’t return from his own 2021 ACL tear until Week 11 of 2022 and Benford himself suffered hand and oblique injuries that caused him to miss Weeks 4 and 5, along with the rest of the season starting in Week 12. This makes isolating weeks when Jackson, Elam and Benford were all healthy difficult, as it’s needed to show snaps divvied up due to coaching decision and not injury. But Weeks 6-8 again showed an increasing defensive snap percentage for Benford (39/42/62) coming off his broken hand while Elam’s defensive snap share went in the opposite direction (76/58/43). After Benford came back from injury, he was earning more and more at the cost of Elam earning less and less. Dane Jackson continued to play more than 80% of defensive snaps during this time as the CB1 in the absence of Tre’Davious White.

Elam also had a blip in the middle of the year where he returned from an ankle injury to play well against the Detroit Lions in limited snaps, only to be inactive without an injury designation the following week. Head coach Sean McDermott said the team was taking a look at newly acquired cornerback Xavier Rhodes when asked about it after the game.

When Elam returned to the mix in Week 14, Benford was already lost for the season and White was back, and he collected a snap-count percentage on defense of 47/48/43 for the final three weeks of the regular season. Dane Jackson remained ahead of him on the depth chart, playing snap percentages during that time of 53/59/57.

So we have a highly productive college player who’s a better athlete than the previous two CB2s for the Bills, who’s taking snaps away from a first-round rookie early in both of their respective NFL careers. The organization may have drafted Elam in the first round, and fans may have thought they were getting a CB2, but the usage indicated that Elam was competing with a seventh-round fellow rookie for the third outside cornerback position behind White and Jackson — and was frequently shown less trust than Benford for even that position.

When you appear to the be a staff’s fourth-favorite option at outside cornerback, it’s hard to project the jump to stable CB2 based on what you’ve seen.

The argument for:

Playoff snaps matter. The games are win or go home, and the Buffalo Bills made the change during the playoffs to having Elam play 62% and 63% of the defensive snaps (while playing 0% on special teams, which is of note), while having a healthy Dane Jackson play 38% and 37% of the snaps against the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals respectively.

The coaching staff trusted Elam in the biggest games of the year, and he delivered. His game against Miami was marked with huge moments, including the fourth-down pass defense that allowed the Bills to run out the clock against their division rival.

But it wasn’t just that one splash play or the interception Elam made that buffed an otherwise disappointing day. Elam’s game against the Dolphins:

  • 34 coverage snaps
  • Four targets
  • One completion allowed
  • Two yards receiving allowed
  • Five yards after catch allowed

It was a stellar day on a day when stellar was required.

And lest we think that the game against the Bengals (a bad day for the defense overall) is a poor reflection on Elam, here are those same figures against the Bengals:

  • 22 coverage snaps
  • One target
  • One reception allowed
  • Six yards allowed
  • One yard after catch allowed

Yes, the coaching staff clearly didn’t prefer Elam to Benford and Jackson early in the season, and not even at the end of the regular season. But the last Elam we saw was not only the most trusted version of Elam, it was the best version of Elam. This best version of Elam was also more impactful than the average level of play we had previously seen from Jackson and Benford. The coaching staff decided to play him the most when the stakes were the highest, and he rewarded them for their faith. It would stand to reason that he would continue that trajectory into the CB2 spot in 2023, and that his level of play with more time on task would remain at a level hoped for when the team selected him after a trade up in the first round.

It should also be noted that Benford was activated from Injured Reserve on January 6, so even if you’d like to make the argument that it would have been a minor stretch for him to play against the Dolphins on January 15, he was inactive in Elam’s favor the following week against the Bengals as well. We’ll never know how much of that decision was based on Benford’s readiness after returning, but the staff didn’t rush it — and Elam gave them no reason to do so.

In addition to Elam’s playoff success, his natural gifts are clearly superior to the other competitors for the CB2 spot. As experience is gained, those natural athletic talents are more likely to show up as knowledge of the system increases and processing speed quickens. Elam was an early declare raw press-man cornerback coming out of Florida. Benford was an experienced senior with a lot of games under his belt when he was drafted. We have a tendency to correlate draft position and pro readiness when, in reality, draft capital correlates most with the way the teams feel about what the player can become rather than what the player is currently.

Elam had the highest athletic ceiling of any of the CB2 contenders. He was playing his best the last time we saw him (a level of play that would absolutely be considered very good as a CB2 for a top defense), and signs indicate he may have earned the trust of the coaching staff. These things in combination can make one believe that a solid CB2 projection isn’t too difficult to make.

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