Maybe it’s too early to call the Buffalo Bills’ 2022 draft class special, but one could argue the collective impact was the difference-maker Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
Five rookies showed potential of being either a long-term starter or potential impact player in Buffalo’s 27-24 preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts. Some starred on offense. Others crushed it defensively. Then, there’s the “punt heard around the world” mantra that continues to flood social media with #PuntGod trending on Twitter.
The rich only get richer in Buffalo. Is this finally the Bills’ year to bring home the title? And can the kids be the ones to help them do it?
First-round cornerback Kaiir Elam made his debut with the first-team defense and seemed more than capable of handling a team’s No. 2 receiver. During the opening series, Elam was matched with Colts’ second-rounder Alec Pierce. On third down, Pierce tried to run a slant inside, but Elam refused to allow much separation, closing the gap at the last second to force an incompletion.
“That's my biggest thing, on third down, I gotta take the ball away, which I didn’t, so, I still got some work to do,” Elam said. “But I'm just happy I made a play.”
Cornerback is the hardest position to translate from college to the pros. Elam got a taste of that, too. During the second quarter, Elam failed to bring down running back Phillip Lindsay on initial contact, allowing the Colts runner to fight his way forward to pick up the first down.
Two plays later against Pierce, Elam played too far back, allowing the receiver a catch for a gain of 18 yards.
Elam did end his afternoon by forcing an incompletion in press coverage against receiver Ashton Dulin.
Meanwhile, fellow rookie cornerback Christian Benford looked the part of a high-end backup during his reps opposite Elam. Much like the first-rounder, he too also seemed to work his way into coach Sean McDermott’s press-coverage requirements with ease.
During the first quarter, Benford broke up a pass on fourth-and-4 intended for receiver Michael Pittman Jr. on a pass from Colts starter Matt Ryan.
“It looked like both of them battled out there,” McDermott said of the rookie pair. “They didn’t shy away from the competition.”
Elam and Benford weren’t the only two rookies making strides. Fifth-round receiver Khalir Shakir led Buffalo with five catches for 92 yards and averaged 18.4 yards per catch. He is currently fighting to be the team’s No. 3 or No. 4 receiver.
Third-round linebacker Terrell Bernard recorded a scoop-and-score touchdown for Buffalo following a strip sack in the second quarter. Seventh-round linebacker Baylon Spector also looked impressive, recording 10 total tackles and a pass deflection during the fourth quarter.
“To get that experience, that exposure, you can’t replicate it,” said McDermott of his young group.
The rookies will try to build on the development as the Bills return to Highmark Stadium to face the Denver Broncos on Saturday at noon in a second preaseason outing.