Three takeaways on the Buffalo Bills defense after OTAs

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The past two years have been a new experience for Kaiir Elam.

After the Buffalo Bills traded up to acquire Elam at No. 23 in the 2022 NFL draft, expectations were high for the cornerback to fill a major position of need for Buffalo and take on a starting role. That hasn't happened.

Instead, Elam started six of the 13 games he played in 2022 -- a healthy scratch for one game -- and dealt with an ankle injury. And while he was moving in a positive direction, he suffered a preseason injury last season and only played in three games (started two), in part due to spending seven weeks on injured reserve.

"Never in my life," Elam said when asked if he's ever been through the trials he's faced with the Bills. "Every year, I feel like I played football, I've always grown and always became the guy and seen the accolades and seen the success. ... I feel like, every year of [my career], I feel like I've grown and gotten a lot better."

Earning a role higher on the depth chart has proven difficult for Elam with Dane Jackson -- now with the Carolina Panthers -- and Christian Benford, a sixth-round pick from the 2022 class, playing ahead of him. Benford started 14 games in 2023. The team also traded for veteran corner Rasul Douglas after Tre'Davious White suffered a season-ending torn right Achilles.

With White released this offseason, Douglas and Benford are in the lead for the starting jobs, but the opportunity to compete will be there. Elam, 23, is now in his third year in the league and embracing what he has learned from the last two years.

Elam noted a desire to consistently play free and has also worked with nickel corner Taron Johnson on playing as a smaller defensive back.

"Mentally, I feel like it kind of ate at me. Well, not kind of, it did eat at me," Elam said. "I learned to appreciate the struggles cause it helped me become into who I am now. It's not like I was cutting corners. It's not like I wasn't listening or wasn't taking notes, wasn't preparing the right way. It just, I felt like it allowed me to learn though, like that's just the reality of it, and sometimes you can't really force success."

The adjustments this year extend beyond his mindset, with a new defensive coordinator in place in Bobby Babich and a new cornerbacks coach in Jahmile Addae. Elam also changed his number from 24 to 5 this year.

"I was born with [five]. I came out the womb, I swear, this is my number," Elam said, "I wore five since I was four years old, I wore it in elementary school, middle school, high school, college. So, I just feel like this number chose me."

Douglas is the only Bills player that has not been on the field at any of the three voluntary OTAs open to the media, and with the changes the team experienced on both sides of the ball this offseason, there are opportunities for players to take on new roles.

"Clean slate for Kaiir. Working extremely hard," Babich said. "I think his mindset is where it needs to be. And coach Addae and [safeties] coach [Joe] Danna are doing a great job with him honing in on the little things where we know he needs to improve literally minute by minute, drill by drill. We're not trying to go big scope. We're trying to focus in on certain things."

Landing in Buffalo: Babich became a popular defensive coaching candidate this offseason with three teams outside of the Bills requesting interviews: The Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins. Babich said on Tuesday, his first press conference as coordinator, that he interviewed with two of the teams, but declined to name them.

"It was pretty hectic, things happen fast," Babich said. "And in the end, I had to make a decision that was best for my family and myself, and obviously ended up exactly probably where I thought it would play out if you were gonna ask me and couldn't be happier. Couldn't be happier."

He has worked in a variety of roles under Sean McDermott in Buffalo since McDermott was hired by the Bills in 2017, but also overlapped with him in Carolina in 2011-12.

While there has not been a decision on whether Babich or McDermott, who called defensive plays last year for the first time as a head coach, will be playcaller, Babich acknowledged the role their relationship can have.

"I'm a fool if I don't use Sean McDermott," Babich said. "And in the end, he's the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, not only because he's a great leader and a great football mind, but he's made his name on defense, and I've always looked at Sean as a mentor, and already I'm picking his brain on things every day."

Defensive line expectations: The success of the defensive line this season comes with some question marks on the outside, including if Von Miller can look closer to his previous form. He tore his right ACL on Thanksgiving in 2022 and didn't start to make much of an impact until the end of last season.

"There was flashes of some Von Miller there at the end of the year," Babich said. "Von's working hard to get back. Von's a terrific person. The expectation is that minute by minute, we're just continuing to get better and continuing to hone back in on the skills and to train the skills that are needed for him to impact the game like we need him to."

Miller, who continues to be investigated for allegations of assault, said Tuesday that he's been "feeling great" and practicing without a knee brace, something that he didn't do last year.

The team picked up the fifth-year option of defensive end Greg Rousseau. Rousseau, along with AJ Epenesa, is a player the Bills are hoping can take another step forward and improve off his eight and five sacks the previous two seasons, respectively, and earn a bigger deal beyond the option.

"I put the most pressure on myself, like nobody has higher expectations for me than I have for myself," Rousseau said. "And honestly it just comes from me wanting to be great and also just wanting to help my teammates out and help my team win. It's a team sport and when one player is playing good, you can help out somebody else on the defense and vice versa."