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Opinion: CB Kaiir Elam draft pick approaching “hedged disappointment” for Buffalo Bills

It reminds me of something

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

Do you remember John McCargo?
I’m sure some people barely remember.

The Buffalo Bills made him a first-round pick in 2006. Hailing from the same defensive line as No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams with the North Carolina State Wolfpack, McCargo was the second of the Bills’ first-round selections that year, and they traded up to select him with pick 26 after taking safety Donte Whitner out of Ohio State at eight overall.

After the draft, analysts questioned the value of the selection at that location, and the Bills doubled down on defensive tackle in the 2006 NFL Draft two days later. With the 134th overall selection in that draft, the Bills made Kyle Williams out of Louisiana State University a fifth-round pick.

McCargo was behind Williams from almost the moment he arrived into camp with the team. He only played in five games during his rookie year as Williams, Larry Tripplett, and Tim Anderson remained ahead of him on the depth chart. Year two was hoped to be better for McCargo, but after recording zero starts in 2007, he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts. However, he failed his physical there and reverted back to the Bills, playing out the rest of his rookie deal there and playing one season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before his NFL career ended.

We tend not to look back on John McCargo as a meaningful bust in part because Kyle Williams went on to become not only a very good defensive tackle, but also a beloved team leader. There were absolutely people who were more happy for Williams than they were for themselves when the Bills broke their 17-year playoff drought. McCargo’s career not meeting expectations associated with a player you trade up in the first round for was hedged because the team acquired a player who vastly exceeded expectations at the same position in that same draft class.

Does this sound vaguely familiar to anyone else?

Buffalo Bills 2022 first-round cornerback Kaiir Elam was playing in the second half of a preseason game on Saturday against the Chicago Bears, signifying once again where he sits on the cornerback depth chart for the Bills as they prepare for their regular-season opener on Monday Night Football against the New York Jets. One of the reasons he’s at that position in the pecking order is due to 2022 sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford. Benford made another handful of good plays against Chicago, once being in perfect position along the sideline for a pass breakup and on another occasion, breaking down and making a tackle of elusive Bears quarterback Justin Fields before the hopeful Chicago franchise player and 2022 1,000 yard rusher could gallop into the open field.

It was Benford who opened the 2022 season ahead of Elam on the depth chart, walking out there for the opening snap against the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday Night Football. Although the team rotated by drive that game and moving forward, Elam wasn’t able to get meaningful snaps at the position until after Benford suffered injuries during the season. Elam’s playoff performances against the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals gave many hope that he’d turned a corner not just in his on-field play, but also in the eyes of the coaches. But the 2023 season is upon us and it’s hard to see Elam as anything other than the fourth outside corner on the depth chart, behind Tre’Davious White, Dane Jackson, and Benford. What was interpreted in the 2022 postseason to have been playing time due to trust may have been playing time due to necessity, and now the dreaded “b” word in relation to draft picks is starting to percolate across Bills Mafia in relation to the former Florida cornerback.

Meanwhile, the Bills may have found a gem in Christian Benford. A platoon situation between Benford and trusted veteran Dane Jackson might be what rolls out across from stalwart Tre White in Week 1, which leaves Elam as an emergency backup or depth piece. Benford came into the league with a ton of experience from his time at Villanova, having started eight games and played in nine as a true freshman in 2018, and compiled meaningful snaps and starts playing in a varied defensive system before being drafted by the Bills in 2021. Elam came to One Bills Drive having played the overwhelming majority of his snaps as a press-man corner at Florida.

The idea that Benford might start off ahead of Elam due to this wasn’t outrageous in 2022. In 2023, it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a disappointment that Elam hasn’t grabbed hold of the CB2 spot for Buffalo given his gifts, pedigree, and the expectations associated with being a first-round pick.

But it’s a hedged disappointment in part due to Benford.

So once again, the Bills traded up in Round 1, selected a player, then made a Day 3 pick at that same position in that same draft, and watched as the Day 3 player outshined the first-round pick (at least so far).

It’s important to note that the analogy is not “Williams is Benford and McCargo is Elam.” Elam’s play against the Dolphins and Bengals in the playoffs was already better than any flashes McCargo showed during his tenure with the Bills, and Benford isn’t ready to be compared to a stalwart six-time Pro Bowler with a second-team All-Pro nod to his name. But the relationship between McCargo and Williams, with the Day 3 pick outperforming the first-round pick who the team traded up to get at the same position from the same draft, mirrors that of the relationship between Elam and Benford.

The failure of Elam to live up to expectations stings. It does. There’s no way around it. But Benford makes it sting a tad bit less. Maybe in time, we will barely remember.

...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!