ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — This never was going to be a make-or-break draft for the Buffalo Bills.
For that matter, their 2021 draft wasn’t, either.
The Bills have been built to be a Super Bowl contender since 2020. All they needed to do in the first round Thursday night was fill a hole in their roster. That hole was cornerback, and the Bills did the logical thing by selecting Kaiir Elam from the University of Florida.
The Bills were so determined to come out of the round with a cornerback that they traded up two spots to do so, going from No. 25 to 23, by sending a fourth-round pick (130th overall) to the Baltimore Ravens.
“Obviously, I’ve been hearing it loud and clear, ‘We don’t have a corner,’ from every single one of you (reporters), neighbors, kids, everyone,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. “So, we’ll all sleep good tonight that we added a corner.”
Elam was one of the better cornerbacks available after two of the higher-rated players at the position, Derek Stingley Jr. of LSU and Sauce Gardner of Cincinnati, were chosen by the Houston Texans and New York Jets third and fourth overall, respectively. Trent McDuffie, arguably viewed as the best corner in the draft, went to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 21, after they traded up from No. 29 with the New England Patriots.
What forced the Bills’ hand to move ahead of the Dallas Cowboys, at No. 24, to land Elam? Beane said he was the lone remaining player on the Bills’ draft board with a first-round grade.
“If we would have missed here on it, you still don’t know how it’s going to fall (Friday) at (pick) 57 (in the second round),” Beane said. “It was within striking range. You’d love to just sit there and not (trade up), but he was sitting out there and we really felt like he was gonna be a great fit in our defense.”
Elam has a chance to be an immediate starter as a replacement for Levi Wallace, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency. He could even be called upon to hold the fort should Tre’Davious White need additional time to heal from the major knee injury he suffered Thanksgiving night.
“It’s an unknown exactly what his timeline will be,” Beane said of White’s return to full speed. “It’s still too far out. I mean, he’s hitting everything, he’s done a great job. But we want depth there. We still expect Tre to be ready to roll here, hopefully at the beginning of the season. We’ll see.”
You get the feeling this match between Elman and the Bills was something that might very well have been meant to be. At least, that was how Elam felt after his pre-draft visit to the Bills’ facility, during which he met with Beane, coaches and White.
“Once I got to Buffalo and did my visit, I just saw something special,” Elam said. “I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it could be, but I just felt something special. I felt like it was an environment I could go in and try to compete and learn as much as I can and try to have an immediate impact.”
The GM made it clear that Elam was not assured of being a starter simply because he was a first-round choice. “Kaiir will have to come in and earn it,” Beane said, making a point to mention that Dane Jackson will be in the mix to compete for a starting spot. “I’m a big Dane Jackson fan. I don’t see him just relenting his chance to start just because we drafted someone in the first round.”
In 35 collegiate games, Elam finished his career with six interceptions, 26 passes defensed and a fumble recovery. He also had 79 tackles, 52 of which were solo.
“First off, he plays in the SEC, which is the closest thing to our level,” Beane said. “He’s gone against some top-tier talent in his career, guys that have been already drafted a year ago and we think he’s got a high ceiling. He’s a young player (at 20 years old).
“We feel like he’s got a lot of things that he does well. He’s a bigger, longer guy (at 6-foot-1). He’s got speed to carry the vertical (pass routes)… We believe he has the skill set, we believe he has the makeup, the DNA that he’s going to do everything he can to be ready if his number’s called.”
That view was reinforced during Elam’s pre-draft visit to the Bills while the player was having lunch with Beane and coach Sean McDermott.
“I said, ‘We’re drilling you with questions. Do you have any questions for us about the Bills, the NFL, anything like that?’” Beane said. “And he said, ‘What does Tre White do? What has he done to be so good? What do you guys see?’ Then, (Elam asked), ‘What do you see in my game that you like and what do you think I need to get better at?’
“Just some really good questions, a guy that’s serious and focused and driven to be really good at his craft is what I took from it.”
Sounds like the sort of guy who just might have what it takes to fill the only significant hole on a Super Bowl contender.