For the first time in three seasons, there will be a different cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White on the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart. (Being on the PUP list, Tre’Davious White might not play week one, but for the sake of this article, we are going to assume he will.) Buffalo let capable veteran Levi Wallace walk and answered the calls of Bills fans who long wanted them to draft a toolsy cornerback opposite by taking Florida standout Kaiir Elam with their first round pick. Coming in at 6-foot-1 and a 4.39 40-yard dash, Elam fits the NFL mold for a starting outside cornerback.
But what are realistic expectations for a rookie corner? How much can Elam stand out in year one? Let’s take a look at the past few years of first round cornerbacks.
Let’s look back
The first thing we will do is look back and look at the cornerbacks taken in the first round.
2021-Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain, Caleb Farley, Greg Newsome III.
2020-Jeff Okudah, CJ Henderson, AJ Terrell, Damon Arnette, Noah Igbinoghene, Jeff Gladney.
2019- Deandre Baker
2018-Denzel Ward, Jaire Alexander, Mike Hughes.
2017- Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, Adoree’ Jackson, Gareon Conley, Tre’Davious White
This is a long list of players, so looking at all of them may give us the most precise expectations for Elam. We will filter the list down in two different ways. We will only look at players still in the league and taken past the halfway point in the first round (16 overall on). We will do this because, for one, looking at a player who busts out of the league in a couple of years or players with such dominant skill sets that they were a top 10 pick will not yield us realistic expectations. We will also remove Caleb Farley as he only played in parts of three games. That leaves us with the following players:
Greg Newsome II, AJ Terrell, Noah Igbinoghene, Jaire Alexander, Mike Hughes, Marlon Humphrey, Adoree’ Jackson, Tre’Davious White.
How did each of these cornerbacks fair as rookies?
|Player||PFF Coverage Grade||Reception %||Passer Rating Against||Pass break ups|
|Greg Newsom III||70.6||63.8||96.6||8|
Finally, the reason you probably clicked on this article, what do these numbers tell us, and what can we expect from Kaiir Elam?
If we look at the numbers above, we see even cornerbacks who are successful as rookies or go on to have successful careers; the numbers can be inconsistent. Look no further than Tre’Davious White. White was second in defensive rookie of the year voting in 2017 and still fell only 17th in passer rating against among qualifying corners. AJ Terrell, who was among the league’s best corners in 2021, gave up completion on almost 70 percent of passes in his rookie year. This is just looking at players who have gone on to be top 10 cornerbacks. Adoree’ Jackson has been a fine player, but not in the same tier as White, Terrell, or Humphrey. In his rookie year, Jackson ranked out as the 34th best corner by PFF grades.
None of this is to say rookie cornerbacks are always problematic. Nor is it to say Kaiir Elam is destined to be a liability. The numbers above are the frame expectations appropriately. Greg Newsome II, drafted three spots later than Elam in 2021, could be the best place to set our expectations. Ask Browns fans, and not many would complain about what they saw from him as a rookie. Newsome II finished 28th in PFF’s coverage grade while allowing coming in the middle of the road among cornerbacks in completion percentage and passer rating. Promising numbers with plenty of room to grow.
If you want to set reasonable expectations for Kaiir Elam as a rookie, expecting him to come in as a shutdown corner will leave you disappointed. If Tre’Davious White doesn’t start week one, he could have more force on his shoulders.
So what are my expectations? Elam has the traits to keep him afloat while he figures out the game at this level. It will not be the Tre’Davious White Rookie of the Year runner-up type season. He will be helped out by a hopefully improved pass rush and a safety duo behind him going on their fifth season together. Simply put, he will grade out as a mid-tier outside corner. He will be one of the top three rookie corners, and despite being likely outshined by Sauce Gardner, he will be what the Bills’ defense needs and an upgrade over Bills cornerbacks of the past. I predict he will allow completions on 62% of passes, allow a passer rating of 95.0, and receive a PFF grade of 73 and 8 pass break ups.