The Bills' roster looks to be one of the most complete in the league heading into training camp. With star players at every position and quality depth to back them up, it will be interesting to see the decisions made when the roster has to be cut down to 53 by the end of the summer.
One position that isn't solidified yet is the second cornerback spot opposite Tre'Davious White. There will be a clearer picture of White's status when Training Camp rolls around, but the coaches and players have said he's on track with his rehab and is working as hard as anyone to get back on the field.
The three corners behind White, Siran Neal, Dane Jackson, and Kaiir Elam, will all be competing throughout the summer to win that CB2 job when the season starts. Neal, the oldest player among the three, has embraced more of a leadership role going into his fifth season with the team.
"We got a lot of young guys in the room right now, more than the older guys," Neal shared. "I'm taking all the young guys under my arm right now. Things that I see from film and stuff that they are struggling with, I just tell them to think about it this way or that way and just keep pushing it over. Right now, it's early in the process so their head's spinning but they're catching on pretty fast. And with the guys that we got and the guys that they brought in, the DB room looks nice."
Since he was drafted in 2018, Neal has done whatever he could to help this Bills' team. A key contributor on special teams, Neal has also seen time at safety, outside corner, and nickel corner. Since 2019, he's played at least 10% of the snaps on defense and more than 60% of the snaps on special teams. Dane Jackson has learned this important lesson from Neal during his two years in the league.
"Just how resilient you gotta be," Jackson said. "He's been bouncing around with so many different positions. He's here, he's there but he's never wavered. He comes to work every single day and that's just what he does."
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Neal believes that his versatility is one of his biggest strengths on the football field.
"Especially with the cornerback position," Neal added. "Whether it's will, nickel, dime, whatever they want me to do. I'm very versatile so whatever they asked me to do, I just learn it. Learn the playbook and when my time it's called, I just have to go out there and execute."
Neal believes he's ready to take his game to the next level. In his eyes, the biggest thing he's improved upon since he's being drafted is his consistency. His mindset this offseason is to stay on top of his body and the playbook to be able to take on more for this defense. He thinks the more he can do, the better player he will be and the better the team will be.
Dane Jackson, going into his third season, has a similar mindset as Neal. He's down to play whatever role he needs to for this team. That selflessness and willingness to help out the team however they may need is a sign of a great young professional – and the coaches have noticed.
"Dane's a winner," Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. "Whether it was his first season when he played through splashes of time, he went out there and performed and that's hard to do as a rookie. And then, last season as well. Tre goes down, Dane steps in, finished off the Saints game, and didn't miss a beat.
"So, are there things he can do better? Yeah, and he's working his butt off to do that. There are things we can all do better. But that's what I love about Dane, he is committed. He's one of the first ones here every morning, and one of the last to leave. Comes in on his own, even on the weekends at times. He's a true pro."
Through two seasons, Jackson has played in 22 games and started eight of them. He's racked up 56 tackles, one interception, 11 passes defensed and one fumble recovery. One promising area that Jackson improved upon from year one to year two is his completion percentage allowed. It was 61.9% in his rookie year and went down to 50% in 2021.
This offseason, Jackson has felt more comfortable as a player compared to his first two years. The biggest difference for him is how he's practicing.
"Just knowing what I need to work on," Jackson shared about his improved work ethic. "Not going out there and working hard just because I'm working hard. But getting the specific details and translating them onto the field."
As this cornerback competition heats up in training camp and throughout the preseason, Jackson's previous in-game experience and his level of performance in those games will be valuable as the coaches make a decision for a starter.
"He played a lot of snaps for us and played very well," Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "He really held his own and the moments never seem too big for him. One of the best tap-in corners and young corners in the league. But that experience is showing up this offseason in our OTAs. From the confidence that he's playing with to his grasp of the system and his understanding of what we're trying to get accomplished.
"And you can see how he's interacting with Kaiir (Elam), just encouraging him and helping him to grow as we go. And I think that comes from what he experienced down the stretch with us last season having to play as much as he did and gaining the confidence that he did to be able to impart some of that information on a young player."
Since Elam got drafted by the Bills, Jackson has been a player he's leaned on and has gone to for advice. Coming in as a rookie, Elam has an overflow of knowledge, talent, and experience that he can tap into with players like White, Neal, Jackson Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and Taron Johnson in the DB room.
Since the start of OTAs, Neal has seen the two younger corners working very hard together to prepare for the 2022 season.
"Oh, they're definitely working," Neal stated. "And I feel like they're definitely getting on the same page. And I see a lot of talking and communication between them. If somebody is lacking on one thing, the other one will pick them up. With them too, it's got to be gotta be a team thing. And I feel like Kaiir, he's a young player, but he's catching on pretty fast."
Being a first-round pick, expectations will be high for Elam in his first season. As he is going through the transition from college to the pros, the rookie corner has been working on eye placement and his technique throughout the offseason. Elam has learned a lot through OTAs and minicamp as he begins his journey not just to play in the NFL but be great.
"The biggest lesson I learned was situational football," Elam shared. "My growth and knowledge about situational football have grown tremendously. In the short amount of time I've been here, I've learned so much and I'm still learning to this day.
"Learning what the offense is expecting, and what the defensive coordinator is trying to do to counter that. I think that's grown exponentially, thanks to Coach McDermott. He preaches and harps on that daily. Also, the importance of taking away the ball in this league. It's super-duper hard and the great ones can do it consistently."
This Bills' coaching staff has a knack for coaching up young corners to be successful in the NFL. Elam will be their next project and as the potential future of the Bills' defensive backfield, he's already starting off on the right foot.
"What stands out about him first is his professionalism for a young man, a young player," McDermott stated. "Probably a lot of that comes from who he is and how he was supported at home because of his family. And the way that they've been around the NFL. Other than that, you've seen him out there with the second group, some with the first group.
"It may continue to mix and match. He's been going through the normal rookie growing pains. You have a good play; how do you follow it up with another good play? You have a bad play, how do you reset, come back and have a good play? A lot of it's mental as much as anything."