Tre’Davious White will soon make his return to the Buffalo Bills lineup. The former All-Pro cornerback, who missed the last chunk of last season and the first six games of this one due to an ACL tear suffered during last season’s Thanksgiving game in New Orleans, returned to practice before the bye week. His injury, though notable, has not had the dire effects on the Buffalo defense that some had feared, as the Bills’ cup runs over with depth. Dane Jackson, Christian Benford, and Kaiir Elam have played well and have demonstrated unique skill sets that have once again made the Bills one of the best passing defenses in football. When White returns, what do the Bills do with these four corners?
How are the Bills currently splitting reps among the three healthy corners? At first glance, it can be messy to pick through due to the injuries the team has faced throughout the season. But make no mistake, the Bills view Dane Jackson as their top corner. Jackson played 97% of defensive snaps in the season’s first game. When he returned from an injury he sustained in Week 2 two weeks later, he played 99% of snaps. He was pulled early against the Steelers because the game was a blowout.
Now here is where it gets tricky. The only game in which all three corners were 100% healthy was Week 1 against the Rams. In that game, Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam split reps; 58% for Benford (who got the “start”) and 45% for Elam. Since that first game, the Bills have played a bit of musical chairs with their cornerbacks. Elam is the only one of the three who has stayed uninjured throughout the year. When Benford returned from a hand injury in Week 6, he only received 38% of the snaps, with Elam receiving 76%.
All things considered, Bills corners have held the fort down in White’s absence, led by Jackson. Among all defenders with a minimum of 20 targets, Dane Jacksons ranks 21st in completion percentage allowed and third in passer rating against. First-round rookie Kaiir Elam has had some bumps but has largely played admirably for a rookie. He currently ranks 21st in passer rating against while reeling in two interceptions, including a clutch pick against Patrick Mahomes in the endzone in Week 6. Christian Benford rounds out the Bills’ corners with a passer rating against of 92.7.
So what could this look like when Tre’Davious White returns to the lineup? Barring a dramatic change in the quality of Jackson’s play, it will be near impossible to justify taking him off the field for the rookies. Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford have inarguably superior traits to Dane Jackon, but Jackson is simply the better player at this juncture. Head coach Sean McDermott is not one to hand jobs over to rookies, so that begs the question, how do the Bills get their rookies on the field? The Bills broke out their dime defense for the first time this season against the Chiefs, in which they ran dime 11.5% of the time, with Siran Neal being the corner that came off the bench. If the Bills decide to use this defense at a similar rate going forward, they could potentially sneak one of their rookie corners onto the field. But this would require removing Tremaine Edmunds or Matt Milano, who are also having stellar years. Another way is if the Bills decide to ease White into action, one or both of the rookies could keep rotating in, which can be expected in White’s first few weeks. But once playoff football returns, it is hard to see a world where Benford or Elam sit atop the Bills’ depth chart opposite Tre’Davious White. Not because the rookies are underwhelming, but because the Bills have a wealth of corner talent.