The days of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson forming arguably the best cornerback tandem in the NFL are long gone. Right now, the New England Patriots’ depth chart at the position is led by serviceable-but-non-shutdown-caliber Jalen Mills and a big question mark in the form of either Malcolm Butler or Terrance Mitchell opposite him.
The Patriots will probably be able to survive with that cast of characters atop the depth chart — in part due to a deep safety group that will help mix up looks — but history has shown that they are at their best when they have a shutdown cornerback guarding the outside. Finding one of those at this point in the process will be difficult, but the upcoming draft does offer some candidates.
We already looked at the likes of early-round prospects Trent McDuffie, Andrew Booth Jr., Kyler Gordon and Roger McCreary, so let’ add another player to the mix.
Name: Kaiir Elam
Position: Outside cornerback
School: Florida (Junior)
Opening day age: 21
2021 season: 10 games; 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss; 36 targets, 19 catches, 191 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception
Size: 6014, 191 lbs, 30 7/8 arm length, 76 1/2 wingspan, 8 7/8 hand size
Expected round: Late 1st/Early 2nd
Strengths: If you had to draw an outside cornerback from scratch, he probably would look a lot like Elam. Standing at 6-foot-1, 191 pounds with sufficiently long arms and the necessary speed to fly down the sidelines, he is well-built to take over a starting role early in his career. Elam uses his speed well to mirror opposing wide receivers through their patterns or fly down to help out in run support or against screen passes.
Fluid athlete and mover at 6’1”+ 195+ and fits a lot of what the Patriots typically look for in their corners in terms of size/ability to excel in man. pic.twitter.com/vR7reU2xSv— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) March 7, 2022
One of Elam’s most intriguing traits is his physicality at the line of scrimmage. He is a press-man cornerback through and through, and while his hands are a bit on the smaller side he knows how to use them to get into receivers and impede them at the stem of their routes. While not the quickest of cornerbacks, he is a fluid enough mover; combine his baseline athleticism and press-man mindset and you get a ready-made NFL player.
On top of it all, Elam has also shown a knack for the football. A former high school wide receiver, he was able to break up 26 passes in his 35 games as a Gator. His interception numbers did go down each of his three years in school — from three to two to one — but he knows how to attack the football and win contested catches.
Here’s Elam on Jameson Williams early in the year. Technical corner that flashes his WR skills in coverage. He’s an island corner. pic.twitter.com/rHeEZ8og16— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) March 7, 2022
Weaknesses: As noted above, Elam is not the quickest cornerback prospect. His three-cone (6.98) and short shuttle times (4.21) are a bit on the slower side, and he is a bit slow to come down when playing over the top to keep everything in front of him. Comeback routes or stop-and-go patterns might become a problem at the next level unless Elam learns to fully trust his positioning in man coverage.
The 20-year-old also played needlessly aggressive at times. Appearing in 10 games during the 2021 season, he was flagged seven times. Four of those penalties were holding infractions, with two pass interference flags thrown against him as well.
What would be his role? The Patriots need a CB1, and Elam has all the tools to develop into just that at the next level. He would take over as a starter-level perimeter cornerback in New England’s defense and likely be matched up against the opposing X-receiver most of the time. He is better suited to take on bigger receivers due to his strength and size, but has the physicality at the line of scrimmage to make life hard for smaller speedsters as well.
Does he have positional versatility? As a junior in 2022, “only” 72 percent of Elam’s defensive snaps saw him aligned on the outside of the formation. His value at the next level lies there, but he has also shown that he can move into the slot and/or closer to the box. He is no Roger McCreary in terms of positional flexibility, but he is also no one-trick pony either. Furthermore, Elam is scheme-versatile: he is best as a press-man cornerback but can play in zone concepts as well — something he regularly did during his time at Florida.
Who is his competition? As a likely Day 1 or early Day 2 selection, Elam would not face any competition for a roster spot. As far as playing time is concerned, he would go up against the aforementioned Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell as well as fellow boundary cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade. Elam would be expected to win that competition and earn a starting gig right away.
Why the Patriots? There’s the obvious: J.C. Jackson’s free agency departure created a massive hole in New England’s defensive lineup, and filling it with a highly talented player such as Elam makes plenty of sense. The Florida prospect also has shown that he can hold his own against the top competition in the country, building a first-round résumé in three seasons in the SEC. Elam’s skillset, even more so than his athletic numbers, also fits with what the team is looking for at an outside cornerback with starter-level upside.
Why not the Patriots? Besides the fact that the Patriots simply might not be in a position to draft Elam — he is projected to come off the board right in between their first- and second-round picks — there are also some questions surrounding him. Short-area quickness is not his strong suit, while his 10 bench press reps at the scouting combine were among the lowest at the position. His high number of penalties is a concern as well.
Verdict: Speaking strictly in terms of testing and game tape, there are some better fits at the cornerback position for the Patriots such as Andrew Booth Jr. or Kyler Gordon. However, that does not mean Elam cannot be a productive player in New England’s system: he has the physicality and size to become a very good press-man cornerback capable of standing his ground on an island as a true CB1. Given the team’s versatile secondary as a whole, Elam as a big matchup-specific outside cornerback would have considerable value.