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Could Florida CB Kaiir Elam replace Joe Haden at cornerback for the Steelers?

We continue to take a look at potential cornerback prospects the Steelers could target in the 2022 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton this offseason has already made cornerback a top need headed into 2022, but unless Joe Haden is given a contract extension in the coming days, there is a good chance that the Steelers will have lost all three of their 2020 starters at the cornerback position by next year. This is exactly why we are going to to break down Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam, a potential first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Kaiir Elam is a former four-star recruit who was a multi-sport athlete in high school, participating in football, track, and basketball. He also played on both offense and defense for Benjamin High School. In his four seasons, Elam recorded 71 tackles, 3 sacks, and 9 interceptions as a defensive back and 97 catches for 1,490 yards and 15 touchdowns as a receiver. Despite being recruited by nearly every major school in the country, Elam chose Florida, the same school his uncle, Matt Elam, played at during his collegiate career. Matt, of course, had much success at Florida and became a first round pick. Kaiir’s father, Abe Elam, also made it to the NFL, playing for seven seasons amongst five teams.

Kaiir started five games his freshman season and recorded three interceptions, one of which was in the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl to help secure a victory against Virginia. He became the full-time starter last season and quickly became one of the most feared cornerbacks in the SEC, recording 39 tackles, 11 passes defended, and 2 interceptions. Elam’s best statistical game came against South Carolina, as he registered six solo tackles, one tackle for loss, and two passes defended. He now heads into his junior season having already checked a lot of boxes for NFL scouts. With a solid 2021 campaign, he could easily become a first round pick next April.

Elam is a lengthy cornerback who possesses solid athleticism and tremendous instincts. Primarily a zone corner, Elam displays solid situational awareness and fantastic start-and-stop quickness. This ability to change direction on a dime allows him to break on the ball quickly in zone and to match up well against twitchy, undersized receivers in man. Although he seems to be most comfortable in zone, he has proven that he has the necessary athleticism to play man coverage as well. I expect him to test well at the scouting combine next year, which will likely secure his status as a first round prospect.

Elam’s fluidity and lateral agility pop off the tape when you watch him, and his speed, while it may not be elite, is much better than your typical zone corner. Florida’s defense does is not an aggressive unit, but when Elam was given the opportunity to get physical at the line of scrimmage, he held up very well and used his length properly. He also displays solid ball skills, as evidenced by this clip below against Virginia in the Orange Bowl in 2019.

Doesn’t that interception remind you of Joe Haden’s interception against New England in 2018? I am not comparing Elam to Haden, who was a Gator himself, but Elam plays a similar style to a young Haden. Elam is a bit longer, but they both have tremendous instincts and solid ball skills.

When it comes to areas Elam could improve in, I would like to see him give receivers less room to work with in zone. He drops too deep into his zone too often, giving the receiver a lot of room to work with underneath and create yardage after the catch. This is something that will drive a man-coverage fanatic like myself crazy. Another issue is being consistent as a tackler. If you are going to allow defenses to catch passes underneath, you had better be able to tackle him before he gets upfield. While Elam has shown the ability to make strong tackles, he takes bad angles too often and misreads the quickness and shiftiness of receivers and running backs in the open field, resulting in occasional whiffs. His footwork is also sloppy at times, which could limit his ceiling in any defensive scheme if it is not fixed.

A couple of the clips were not playing the right play this week, but we will roll with what we have. I want to thank Jacob Bost for getting these ready once again. The games these are taken from are Florida vs. Alabama via CBS, Florida vs. Virginia via the ESPN family of networks, and Florida vs. Texas A&M via the ESPN family of networks.

Here is the first play, but I just want you to watch the beginning of it. Elam is the cornerback farthest to the bottom of the screen.

I added this clip simply because Elam’s beautiful backpedal is one of the most NFL-ready traits he has. It is neither tight nor sloppy. He has tremendously quick feet and bends his knees to the perfect height to get the best depth on his backpedal. This trait will allow Elam to come in immediately and contribute to his defense in both man and zone concepts.

The next couple plays we look at will be focused on Elam as a tackler. Here is the first one.

Elam does a nice job avoiding the pick and going around John Metchie. DeVonta Smith is extremely difficult to bring down in the open field, but Elam stays pace with him as he crosses the field, displays excellent closing speed, and takes a nice angle to wrap Smith up near the line of scrimmage. When Elam puts himself in good position to make a tackle, he usually finishes the tackle without any trouble.

However, Elam still needs some work as a tackler, as you will see below. We had some issues with this first clip, but the first play in the clip is the one I want you to focus on.

In the first clip, it was incredibly poor anticipation by Elam. I realize that Najee Harris can hurdle as good as any running back in the country, but the hurdle was hardly needed here. Elam takes an absolutely awful angle, almost effort-lacking, and hopes to bring Najee down around the ankles.

The second clip is not as costly as the first clip, but it is yet another poor angle. Elam dives for receiver Caleb Chapman but dives slightly too far behind him. Chapman is able to easily slip the tackle and gain a couple extra yards before stepping out of bounds. In the NFL, Elam must take better tackling angles on a more consistent basis and make better decisions in the open field.

The final two plays are Elam in coverage. This first play is against Virginia. The play of focus in this clip is the first one that should play. Elam is to the bottom of the screen.

Elam is in man and gets his hands on the receiver right away. The receiver takes the outside track, and Elam does a great job keeping him to the outside. There was some jersey tugging, but Elam is not afraid to get physical when he is one-on-one with a receiver. He displays fluid hips and good ball awareness, turning around at just the right time to defend the pass.

This final play is Elam against Texas A&M. Elam is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Elam is in off coverage, but he gives too much cushion to John Metchie, who cuts toward the sideline. It is an easy throw for Mac Jones, and Metchie has no trouble hauling it in. Too many times in off-man and zone, Elam either drops too far into his zone or gives too much room for the receiver to work with underneath. He will have to become more disciplined in his spacing as he continues to develop as a prospect.

NFL Comparison: Patrick Surtain II

I realize that we have not even seen Surtain at the next level yet, but he is the closest comparison to Elam in recent memory. Surtain was a bit thicker than what Elam currently is, but they are about the same height and play almost identical styles. Surtain tested better than what people expected and proved that he has the athletic ability to do just about anything on a football field. Elam is going to surprise people when he tests as well. He is a tremendous athlete and will likely run a low to mid 4.4. Both Surtain and Elam are best in zone and rely on their instincts and length to make splash plays. Surtain’s footwork is better than Elam’s at this point, but Surtain improved in that area last season. Let’s see if Elam can do the same in what will likely be his final season at Florida.

How would he fit with the Steelers?

Schematically, Elam makes more sense for the Steelers than any other cornerback in next year’s class. Elam is really just a bigger version of Joe Haden. Now, Haden’s instincts were on a totally different level in his prime, and he was more athletic than what his combine testing implied, but Elam has the potential to become a shutdown corner. Keith Butler loves being aggressive with the front seven and extremely conservative with the secondary, and he loves playing his boundary corners high. Elam’s experience in softer coverages would allow him to become an immediate contributor on defense, and his athletic upside would allow him to potentially develop into a shutdown man corner down the line.

Upside in man coverage is not something that usually means much to Steelers fans, but Keith Butler is not going to be the defensive coordinator much longer. If Teryl Austin takes over the defense in the future, there is the potential that the Steelers incorporate more man coverage into their defensive scheme. I prefer players like Andrew Booth and Ahmad Gardner who can cover just about any receiver on an island, but zone defense is a different animal. It is not my cup of tea, but it has been the Steelers’ primary coverage for years. And if the scheme is not going to change in the future, why waste more draft capital on corners that are best suited for man coverage? Justin Layne and Artie Burns have shown us that being able to play what is generally considered a more aggressive coverage does not mean that the same player will be able to play a softer coverage at the same level.

But what do you think of Elam as a prospect? Do you see him as a potential replacement for Joe Haden? How well do you think he would fit with the Steelers? Be sure to share your thoughts on Elam and all things NFL Draft in the comment section below!