It’s a safe bet to say that Buffalo Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam hasn’t had the sort of sophomore NFL campaign he envisioned as a former first-round draft pick of One Bills Drive. As a rookie, we saw flashes of Elam’s raw talent and elite athleticism — the sort of coveted back-40 defender whose size and measurables tell the tale of a player who may one day dominate as a man-cover corner.
Last season, between injury and other unexplained game-day scratches, Elam never really took hold of the CB2 position. Instead, his position-mate — sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford — began to cement his role as a starter when many believed it was a given Elam would win the job.
Fast forward to the offseason between the 2022 and 2023 season and Elam was little more than fodder for discussions and articles as a busted draft pick. He was someone often mentioned in trade or cut conversations. Most didn’t believe he’d even make the team’s initial 53-man roster out of training camp. But an NFL team doing such drastic things to part ways with a first-round draft pick in their second season usually isn’t smart business.
As predicted, Elam didn’t win a starting position for the 2023 season, and he often found himself a healthy scratch in the early goings. The fueled fire of outside noise began to rage. Partway through the 2023 season, it was revealed that Elam had been dealing with an ankle injury, and he was heading to in-season Injured Reserve (IR). When his 21-day return-to-play window opened in December, Elam was eventually elevated back to the team’s active roster — after every bit of those 21 days were exhausted, and cornerback Rasul Douglas was injured.
How could this be when Buffalo had so many other areas of need due to an alarming number of defensive injuries? Why elevate a guy who could simply spend the rest of the season on IR and then give it a go next spring and summer? Hadn’t the book already been written on his Bills career — a player who was a poor fit as an aggressive man-cover corner in a zone-heavy scheme?
The simple answer is no.
When he was brought back to the active roster, Elam was once again an often-inactive game-day player — at least until this past Monday when the Pittsburgh Steelers came to town. Thrust into action early against Pittsburgh, Elam played 80% of the defensive snaps in relief of cornerback Christian Benford, who suffered a knee injury that’s left him day-to-day ahead of this coming weekend’s game. To his credit, Elam was one of a few key players whose performance made all the difference in a physical game.
Mind you, Elam’s efforts against the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t a perfect product, and his pass interference penalty set up a precarious goal line stand. What they were, however, serves as perhaps a microcosm of what Elam’s been with the Bills to this point, and the highs very much allow room for the lows.
It’s more than possible that Elam simply lacked confidence in himself to put bad plays in the rearview mirror, something that head coach Sean McDermott and the team preaches in finding success within their scheme.
Following the team’s Super Wild Card Weekend victory on Monday, Elam spoke with WROC-TV Sports Director Thad Brown about his season.
“Everything that I’ve been through has made me stronger... so I didn’t let those two plays really affect me. Me, earlier in the season — I’d probably let things affect me. Through my whole story I’ve just been growing mentally stronger. I was trying to battle through something — my foot — and I really couldn’t run, couldn’t sprint, couldn’t (do anything). But (I was) trying to force myself to play and play well and it just wasn’t happening. I just want to think God and my teammates for never allowing me to give up.”
Kaiir Elam on his interception, following two bad plays.— Thad Brown (@thadbrown7) January 16, 2024
"Earlier in the year, I'd probably let things affect me. I've been growing mentally stronger."
Thoughtful, impressive stuff from the former first round pick.#Bills pic.twitter.com/QI1wxugPj2
Elam would continue, responding to what a game like this past Monday can do for him moving forward as a professional:
“Still a bust, bro. Still a bust. (laughing) I”m just playin’. I ain’t no bust, I’m playing with y’all. Just trying to make plays. Make plays, make plays, make plays, get Josh back the ball, tackle. I came into the game rusty as I don’t know what. Just had to reset mentally and just go out there and play the game I knew how to play.”
I asked Kaiir Elam what a game like this can do for him going forward.— Thad Brown (@thadbrown7) January 16, 2024
Says he's "still a bust."
Quickly says he's joking.
"Just keep making plays."
Good to see Elam be able to smile. #Billsmafia pic.twitter.com/pnFsaaDhnK
While a fair number of Bills Mafia and those who cover the Buffalo Bills might have given up on Elam before his significant off-the-bench playoff performance, it’s clear now that Elam isn’t ready to let the outside noise win.
To that end, head coach Sean McDermott about watching Elam against the Steelers, knowing he’s still a young player they’re developing, but someone who has heard the outside noise from fans and the media labeling him a “bust.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of Kaiir, and a young player, right, in this situation here. How he handled it, how he stayed mentally tough, he kept working, and he comes back and helps us in a huge way last night with that interception in the end zone down there in the red zone. I think it’s another great example and a testament to him of perseverance and hard work and keeping yourself believing in oneself. And even though when it seems like sometimes many around you — or in this case the outside world — isn’t, and that’s sometimes what happens through the journey of a season.”
There’s plenty for Kaiir Elam to build upon, whether that’s in an effort to continue staring in the short term during these playoffs, or in a push to win the job long term. When Elam’s on, he’s really on, at the expense of Buffalo’s opponents.
In yet another home playoff game for the Bills, Elam lay claim to his opponent’s football, securing a pivotal interception in the turnover game that helped swing victory in favor of Buffalo. Should he be called upon this weekend, It just so happens that Elam and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes have a bit of history.
If Elam can continue making game-changing plays during the biggest moments, he’ll find more opportunity to show out in front of Bills Mafia and the NFL world.