Bills Camp Confidentials: Kaiir Elam


There are three main questions for the Buffalo Bills defense as they enter the 2023 season:

  1. How do they look under Sean McDermott vs. Leslie Frazier?
  2. Who replaces Tremain Edmunds?
  3. How does the CB2 battle shake out?

You clicked on an article called “Bills Camp Confidentials: Kaiir Elam” so we are obviously focusing on No. 3 in the following 900 words.

The Bills don’t need an insane overhaul on defense. Yes, our last memory of that unit was a difficult and frustrating playoff exit at the hands of Cincinnati, 27-10. Before that game, they had a regular season where the Bills finished 13-3 while finishing second in points per game allowed at 17.9, sixth in yards per game against at 319.1, and they were fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).

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One avenue through which Buffalo’s defense could find even more success in 2022 is a sophomore leap from 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam. During his rookie campaign, Elam hauled in two picks, 33 tackles, and allowed 31 receptions. Those numbers slot right in line with being a CB2 in the NFL. If you’re looking for a positive from them, it is that the two picks came in two of the biggest games. He had an interception in a win over the Chiefs and a pick in the playoff victory against Miami.

As far as playing time from last season, Elam took 447 of the just over 1,000 defensive snaps, or 45.4% of them. It’s hard to fully gauge much from that as Tre’Davious White was working back from his ACL, and the team worked in both Dane Jackson and Christian Benford at corner, as well.

The numbers that may be the most important for those pushing Elam to the front of the CB2 line are that he took 62% and 65% of snaps in the two playoff games. So, McDermott was trusting the rookie in the biggest spots.

Let’s turn the page on 2022 and flip to what we’ve seen from Elam in training camp in 2023.

To start that discussion, McDermott said of Elam that he wanted to see him “grow” and “compete.” He has done exactly that, battling with Jackson and Benford for the starting reps at CB2. Elam had an interception in their last practice in Pittsford, and his been sticky in coverage. “Elam hasn’t looked bad, but neither has Dane (Jackson) or (Christian) Benford. Butler talked a lot about their plan for the three CBs getting reps each day with the 1s and 2s and how each guy has a different skill set. Also, spoke on how there’s a long way to go in determining the job (rest of camp, preseason, then keeping the job in season). CB2 is a legitimate battle,” – said @Pro__Ant.

Speaking of defensive backs coach John Butler, here are his comments on Elam. “The thing that Kaiir really does best is play at the line of scrimmage,” which is exactly what we knew about him coming out of Florida. Butler went on to say, “The more he’s able to get his hands on a wideout, the higher level of success that he has. So, putting him in positions on our defense where he can do that and then emphasizing that while trying to develop some of his play in space, but realizing that this is what he does best in all those plays that he’s made so far this camp. Whether it be in one-on-one situations, which he’s done a nice job of in our individual one-on-ones or in team have been when he starts the line of scrimmage, can contest the wideout, he can minimize the space. And he’s done a nice job of that so far.”

Butler referenced Elam’s desire to use his hands and make contact with wideouts. @GregTopmsett points out that isn’t always the best scenario, “He has to keep making plays when he’s on the field. Has to keep earning John Butler’s trust to play without being handsy.” Elam had three penalties called on him last season while allowing a pair of touchdowns.

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Elam is coming off his best day at camp. Snatching the aforementioned pick, taking most of the first-team reps at CB2, and getting to play the sticky, physical style he excels at. However, @Mike_Bundt is still taking a cautious approach to the second-year corner. “I’m a little concerned about Kaiir Elam. The Bills knew he wasn’t a scheme fit when they drafted him but still took him in the first round. The fact that he’s been in Buffalo for over a year and still seemingly behind Jackson and fighting for time with Benford tells me they haven’t seen enough of the flashes they were hoping for when they originally selected him.”

When you trade up in the first round to select a player, you expect him to make a major impact immediately. That wasn’t the case for Elam in 2022. He worked his way into more playing time towards the end of the season but wasn’t the lockdown guy opposite of White that many anticipated. That doesn’t mean he can’t become that guy in 2023. Elam needs to continue to shine with more reps in camp, and the flashes need to turn into a steady beam of light.

A legit corner in the secondary surrounded by All-Pros in White, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer would give Buffalo a defense that should rank top 5 in most major categories and provide new play caller Sean McDermott with the versatility to try and slow down Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and the rest of a loaded AFC come playoff time.