For the first time on our list, we switch to the defensive side of the ball. The biggest change on defense for the Buffalo Bills entering 2023 is that head coach Sean McDermott will now be calling plays after the departure of Leslie Frazier. Buffalo also has a hole in the middle of the field with Tremaine Edmunds signing a mega contract with the Chicago Bears.
Despite those two massive moves, the Bills’ defense still has very high expectations after a 2022 season that saw them finish second in points per game allowed at 17.9 and sixth in yards per game against at 319.1. They finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).
One way the Bills can improve in 2023 is by upgrading the play of 2022 first-round selection Kaiir Elam. This is why the Florida product earned 24 of 60 possible points from our Cover1 Crew, with @LowBuffa ranking him the highest at No. 2.
“Speculation says Sean McDermott will be more aggressive with the front seven in taking on defensive play calling. If that’s the case, the Bills’ defensive backs will have an even greater responsibility to contain receivers with less help. Elam’s physical skillset makes him the most attractive option alongside stalwarts Hyde, Poyer, and White, and it would be great if he could lay an unquestionable claim on CB2,” – @LowBuffa.
The positive – as you’ll see down in analytics, as well – is that Elam played some of his best games in the biggest games. He had an interception in a win over the Chiefs and a pick in the playoff victory against Miami.
The rest of the counting stats are right around average. The pair of picks in the regular season ranked 23rd. The 31 receptions allowed place down at 80th, and the 33 solo tackles slots at 79th.
“It is somewhat concerning he can’t run away with the starting job. Him not stepping up could mean another season of Dane Jackson,” – @sportsroc2
Let’s start with a nerdy stat that will make Bills’ Mafia happy… Elam’s top-graded game, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), came against the Chiefs in Week 4. He earned a 75.5 while pulling in an interception and allowing just eight years per catch on the three receptions he allowed.
Another positive is that the rookie seemed to find himself in the playoffs. He posted an 88.1 overall grade, per PFF, which ranked second of all corners. A coverage grade of 88.0 was also good enough for second. His tackling grade of 79.8 placed him sixth best.
Those numbers aren’t as pretty in the bigger picture, Elam’s 56.7 overall grade placed 96th out of 136 qualified (20+ percent of snaps) corners. Those numbers aren’t wonderful, but he was ahead of third-overall pick Derek Stingley Jr. and fan favorites Eli Apple and JC Jackson.
Elam’s coverage grade was a little higher at 58.7, or 86th best. The trend of being middle of the pack continues in reception percentage against, passing rating against, and many of the other key stats for a CB.
The Bills played just over 1,000 defensive snaps in 2022 with Elam taking the field for 447 of them, or 45.4%. It is hard to get a full gauge on how Buffalo wants to deploy their CBs off of last year, as you’re aware Tre White missed all but six games. Using Week 18, a 35-23 home win over the Patriots, as our most recent barometer for corner deployment, the Bills had White on the field for all 68 snaps while Elam saw 29 and Dane Jackson was deployed 39 times. From that, we can glean that Buffalo wants White to return to the every down CB he was before the ACL injury. We have to go back to 2020 for a truly healthy White, he took over 80% of the Bills’ snaps. That season, it was Levi Wallace who accounted for almost 60% of the CB2 reps. It would be delightful to witness a Buffalo defense that has Elam on the field for >60% of snaps. The biggest question will be can he carry the momentum over from the playoffs? That leads perfectly to my conclusion.
The Bills don’t NEED Kaiir Elam to win the CB2 job, they do have Dane Jackson and Christian Benford, who proved capable at the position. However, with all the measurables (RAS score below) that Elam brings to the table and the fact you used a first-round pick on him, it would be damn nice if he did. If Buffalo can go into 2023 and beyond with two first-round caliber corners holding down the edges of the secondary, that can go a long way toward slowing down offenses like Kansas City and Cincinnati.