Training camp questions: Can a healthy Kaiir Elam flourish under new coach?


Staff member

This is the seventh in a 10-part series of questions previewing Buffalo Bills training camp. Today: Can a healthy Kaiir Elam flourish under new coach?

Kaiir Elam’s big interception in the wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh was a bang-bang play.

Cornerback Kaiir Elam makes a catch during a spring practice drill. Harry Scull Jr., Buffalo News

Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson ran a back-shoulder route into the end zone. Elam stayed on his hip. The split-second he looked up, the ball arrived. Elam made the fast reaction and picked off the pass.

It saved a touchdown in a game the Bills led, 14-0, and Buffalo went on to win, 31-17.

The play was no happy accident.

Nobody stays after practice longer than Elam to work on catching balls fired at short range from a JUGS machine.
In a critical moment, the work paid off.

“You never know when your opportunity is going to come,” the cornerback said after a minicamp practice in June. “I definitely did drop another pick in that game, on the sidelines against George Pickens. Maybe if I wasn’t working on it, maybe I wouldn’t have caught that one. It was a bang-bang play. I think the amount of reps I do, it has to pay off − it has to.”

Elam has not yet lived up to the expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick because he has not nailed down a starting cornerback job the past two seasons.

Part of the reason last season was injury. He tore an ankle ligament in a preseason game and appeared in only three games on defense – Weeks 5 and 6 and the Pittsburgh playoff game, when he saw 52 snaps. Part of the reason is he hasn’t played well enough to beat out Christian Benford, who has vastly outplayed his sixth-round draft status.

Effort and work habits are not part of the reason Elam has fallen short.

Elam believes his willingness to grind to improve eventually will pay off.

“Without a doubt,” he said.

And Elam doesn’t consider last season a total loss from a personal standpoint. He says he got mentally stronger.

“I feel like I became a man,” he said. “I’m so used to my work paying off and getting accolades and seeing success. Every since eighth, ninth, 10th grade, I’ve worked and received more and more accolades. For me to come here and it not go my way, it was very frustrating.

“But I learned that’s how life is,” he said. “You can do everything possible for it to go your way, and it might not. Being able to accept that and be grateful for my situation − that helped me get over it and be like, I’m just going to try to help the team win.”

Can Elam, still only 23 years old, ascend in Year 3 and turn his physical gifts into on-field success? It’s one of the big questions facing the team entering training camp.

In addition to being fully healthy, Elam starts his third NFL training camp with a clean slate because he has a new position coach in Jahmile Addae. He replaces John Butler, who parted ways with the Bills in January after not getting promoted to defensive coordinator.

Butler enjoyed an outstanding six-year tenure as a Bills aide, but there’s a perception he didn’t click with Elam. Butler never has anything but praise for Elam’s effort and work ethic.

Addae, hired off the University of Miami coaching staff, understands this year can be viewed as a fresh start for Elam.

“Eager, very eager, he’s a pleaser,” Addae said of Elam. “I think Kaiir wants to be very good. I think it’s all about me as a coach channeling his energy to make sure it is not wasted energy. When he’s watching film, what exactly are you watching? Are you watching as a spectator or are you watching and going through your progression as an actual player? When you’re on the field getting extra work, are you just doing movement skills or are you doing movement skills that are applicable to what we’re going to ask you to do within the coverage? I don’t want to call it a learning curve because he’s had great coaches in the past, including JB. But the way in which I do things may be a little bit different in that way. So it’s been good to connect.”

Cornerback Kaiir Elam intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Diontae Johnson in the wild-card playoff win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 15. Joshua Bessex, Buffalo News

As the pickoff against Pittsburgh showed, Elam has shown flashes of the ability that made him the 24th pick in the 2023 draft. As a rookie, he had an end zone interception off Patrick Mahomes in a big win at Kansas City. In the 34-31 playoff win over Miami in January 2023, he had a second-half interception and a breakup on the final Miami pass to seal the victory.

“I trust and believe in myself a lot more than I ever did,” Elam said. “I've learned to appreciate the struggles. And I also feel like this helped me come to who I am now. So I just go out there and just try to play free and make plays and really just rely on − not on my skill set, but just a technique that over and over again is repped. And just go back to what my coaches said.”

What Elam has done best the past two years is play at the line of scrimmage. He has been best in man coverage, getting his hands on the wide receiver. Can he perform as well when he’s asked to play in space, more in off coverage?

And he will have to outperform Benford, who already has shown he’s a reliable starting caliber player.

“I think a lot of times as coaches and even as fans, when you think first-round draft pick you think instant success, instant bell cow,” Addae said. “As a coach, that’s what I’m working toward. So I don’t see it any differently maybe as the fans would see it. I do understand, however, that there is a curve between collegiate football and pro football. I do understand that that switch turns on differently for different people. Sometimes it never does. Sometimes it takes two years. Sometimes it’s instant. My job is to be fair and to work fanatically to make sure we can emphasize the things he does well and bring along the things that maybe he isn’t as clean at as of yet. But he has been a treat to coach.”