As soon as the Buffalo Bills released their first regular-season depth chart, there were a couple of notable names featured as new faces who’d earned starting roles on the team’s defense.
The Bills opted to go with the 2022 third-round pick, linebacker Terrel Bernard, to fill the gaping hole left at MLB from Tremaine Edmunds’ departure. Additionally, 2022 sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford won the three-way battle for the CB2 position. Are these two young guns ready for the big stage? Let’s take a closer look.
Terrel Bernard, MLB
Bernard gets the nod in somewhat of a surprising fashion. The undersized MLB (6’1” and 222 pounds) missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury. Other players in the MLB competition like Tyrel Dodson, A.J. Klein, and Baylon Spector were able to get playing time in the preseason. Without any playing time, besides in training camp, I thought Bernard would be once again relegated to a special teams role this season. Dodson seemed to be the favorite by default, but Buffalo decided to invest in their third-round draft pick from last year.
Most of Bernard’s statistics have come via work on special teams. Bernard appeared in all of Buffalo’s games last season but only logged one start versus the Jets in Week 9. In that one start, he posted seven total tackles. For his career, Bernard has logged 22 total tackles, including special teams tackles.
Let’s take a look at the only game film we have of Bernard playing LB. This is the Week 9 game against the New York Jets last season.
In this play, Bernard shows off some of the athleticism that he brings to the table. He reads the play well and shuffles with the flow, being sure to cover his cutback lane and not overcommit. Once the ball carrier goes away from him, he shows off his speed and gets in on the tackle by the opposite sideline.
This is what concerns me about Bernard missing preseason action. He needs reps in live game action to prepare for moments like these — a situation where he takes the wrong run lane as on this play. Instead of scraping over the top and stringing the play to the outside, he ducks inside and immediately takes himself out of the play. If he continues to work outside, he likely makes the tackle for a small gain. Instead, this run goes for a lot more.
Even though Bernard is a little undersized, he can pack a punch. I like the way he plays downhill in this rep. He attacks the blocker and knocks him backward. This causes the run to bump outside and allows his teammates to get in on the tackle.
Another play where Bernard gets lost in the action. He’s caught failing to reading his keys and misses the run fit. Granted, we need to remember he was a rookie at this point, but it’s why losing reps this preseason is more concerning. Hopefully, some mental reps and another year of growth will have Bernard more locked into reading his keys during the game Monday night.
Bernard reads this play well and uses his athleticism to beat the blocker with his quick feet and then stalwart the runner for a minimal gain.
Is he ready?
The Buffalo Bills clearly have more knowledge on the subject than any of us do, but it’s hard to come to a conclusion with such little evidence to go off of. I’ll take the easy way out and say it’s “to be determined.” In the end, does it really matter if we think he’s ready or not? Bernard is starting and the Bills are running with him, end of story. I like the decision. Why not see what your third-round draft pick from a year ago can do? If he plays great then they look like geniuses. If he stinks, then you have Tyrel Dodson to fall back on for this year.
Christian Benford, CB
I like an underdog story, don’t you?! Ideally, Buffalo’s first-round draft pick from a year ago, Kaiir Elam, would be the one stepping into the starting CB2 role. But, if you can get the same “starter” production from a sixth-round selection, who cares? I’m not saying Elam’s career is now a “bust” — because it’s not. Nor I am saying Benford is a “sure thing” — he still has a lot to prove. What I am saying is that if Benford trots out there this season and grabs the CB2 role by the horns and dominates, we shouldn’t be upset that it wasn’t Elam.
Benford turned in a solid preseason and was the winner of the three-horse race between Elam, Jackson, and himself. I don’t think Jackson did anything to lose his starting position, but I think the Bills might be looking for a little more “juice” out of the CB2 position. Benford is more athletic and shows some ball-hawking qualities that make it fun for defensive coordinators to call coverages.
As a rookie, Benford won the starting job and started five games last year opposite Dane Jackson while Tre’Davious White was out. Unfortunately, he only played in nine games last year due to injury. In those nine games, Bernard logged 24 total tackles but also had six missed tackles. In pass coverage, per Pro Football Reference, he was targeted 28 times and allowed 17 completions for a 60.7% completion rate. He allowed one touchdown and an opposing QB passer rating of 84.1 when targeted.
Benford plays this route well. He doesn’t get a good jam initially but is able to get in phase quickly. He hesitates a little bit trying to anticipate a hitch route, which gets him a step behind. He is athletic enough to stay with the receiver and create a tight window for the QB to throw in, which causes an incomplete pass.
Benford is a willing contributor in the run game, and he shows that during this play. He reads the play quickly and darts to the line of scrimmage. The best part is Benford doesn’t over-pursure — he sets the edge, which forces the RB back inside. Then he gets in on the tackle. Well done.
Benford ends up playing out of the slot in here and he smothers the receiver. He looks calm and collected while staying in phase. When the receiver turns his head to look for the ball, Benford does the same. He then gets his body into perfect position by boxing out the receiver and he making a play on the ball. The only way this coverage could have been better was to get an interception.
Another fantastic tackle in run support by Benford on this play. Benford stays patient and doesn’t panic when the action goes away from him. Once he sees the QB with the ball, he puts himself in a perfect position to make an open-field one-on-one tackle on Justin Fields. Easier said than done.
Is he ready?
I think the answer is yes. In a previous article this preseason, I mentioned that someone would have to “take away” the job from Dane Jackson, and Benford did just that. He played well in the preseason and there were also many reports of Benford excelling in training camp practices. I wouldn’t rule out some sort of rotation between Benford and Jackson, but I would rather the Bills let Benford run with it on his own. It will be fun watching Benford come into his own. The Bills are notorious for finding defensive back talent late in drafts, and Benford is next on that long list. I believe he might have a chance to be the best out of all of them.
Tell us what you think
Are Benford & Bernard "ready" to be starters?
This poll is closed
Yes, they both are
No, niether of them are