With the Cincinnati Bengals tripling down to improve the offensive line in free agency, improving the defense may be the focus early on in this year’s draft. The team has parted ways with Trae Waynes, who unfortunately was not able to stay healthy long enough to secure himself as the team’s top cornerback.
Now the search is on for who will compete with Eli Apple to line up opposite Chidobe Awuzie this fall. Two names have emerged as possibilities in Round 1: Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr and Florida’s Kaiir Elam. This breakdown will attempt to answer which one is the better choice for Cincinnati.
Both Booth and Elam have excelled in a variety of zone and man coverages. This makes them both an excellent fit for the Bengals, who are very multiple defensively. One difference that has been pointed out is that Elam is often called for defensive holding penalties. Grabbing on to receivers seems to be prevalent in the Florida defensive backfield, which leads me to believe it is something that can be coached out of him. He is not as refined in his technique as Booth, but there is no reason to believe this cannot improve, particularly given what he brings to the table athletically.
Let’s take a closer look at their coverage skills.
Booth tight coverage pic.twitter.com/bLMLvMCpVo— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 6, 2022
As physical of a tackler as he is, Booth rarely strikes the receiver violently at the line of scrimmage when playing press coverage. He keeps his eyes focused on the receiver’s hips and waits to see the release. When he turns to the outside, he brings his inside hand around to the receiver. This is excellent technique and helps him to open up his hips and make the 180-degree turn. Too often, corners will try to strike the receiver with their outside hand when the receiver is taking an outside release. This locks their hips and makes it hard for them to transition smoothly.
Booth keeps his eyes locked on the receiver’s hips as the route develops. This is why they turn in unison at the top of the route.
Booth - smooth pic.twitter.com/K2MDkojLgb— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 6, 2022
Booth is incredibly smooth in his transitions, which is a huge asset for cornerbacks.
At the top of the screen, you see Booth start in a backpedal. Then he opens up to the quarterback running and continuing to gain depth.
Booth was unable to test due to his sports hernia, but shows most of the requisite athleticism on film. (That’s a bit of foreshadowing coming at you.)
Elam patience pic.twitter.com/k1IKGrf7UL— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 5, 2022
Elam’s greatest asset is his patience. He is confident enough in his speed and his ability to make up ground that he can wait for a route to develop before committing. This makes him less susceptible to double moves than other cornerbacks.
In this clip, the receiver initially looks like he is breaking on an out route, but he takes the route vertical. Elam doesn’t bite on the out. When the receiver turns up field, he brings his inside arm around and matches up with him perfectly.
Booth on the bottom of the screen pic.twitter.com/dLFSOReWdF— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 6, 2022
In this clip, Booth thinks he has help inside, but both safeties are playing the deep crosser. This leaves Booth alone, chasing the post from behind. If the quarterback threw a better ball, this would have been six points. Booth didn’t do anything wrong. It was a good play call by the offense that took away his safety help, but he didn’t do anything special to make up for it either.
Elam comes back to make the play pic.twitter.com/R83G101unT— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 5, 2022
On this play, Elam was lined up on the innermost as the offense lined up in trips. He does a poor job in transition, and the receiver gets a step or two on him. Like Booth in the previous clip, Elam is forced to chase, but unlike Booth, he is able to make a play on the ball.
Watch the whole clip, it switches to a second angle where Elam’s makeup speed is evident. This is a distinguishing difference between the two. Booth is an excellent technician who is rarely seen in a bad position, but Elam has that extra burst to make up for mistakes.
Elam break pic.twitter.com/sTD1yDpnvh— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 5, 2022
Another difference that stands out on film is how often Elam is able to make a play on the ball.
Elam is lined up at the bottom of the screen in this clip and is playing a deep outside field zone. The ball is thrown inside and underneath him. This is not his play to make, but an excellent read and break gets Elam there in time to disrupt the pass.
Elam missed tackle TD pic.twitter.com/3Gm9K2EF3q— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 5, 2022
The biggest criticism of Elam is his tackling, and as the clip above demonstrates, it is justified. However, I don’t think it’s fair to call him a “bad tackler.” His missed tackles tend to look like this one. He is in the open field one-on-one. The ball-carrier jukes. Elam whiffs on the tackle in humiliating fashion.
That’s not a tackling problem. That’s a pursuit angle problem and an eye problem.
As you watch this clip, you can see his initial angle opens up a huge opportunity for a cutback. It’s almost like he is just trying to force the cutback, thinking one of his teammates will make the play (more foreshadowing). He needs to focus his eyes on the ball-carrier’s hips and take an inside-out (in this case) angle. This will either force the ball-carrier to run out of bounds or force him to cutback right into him.
Cobra Kaiir pic.twitter.com/2kz6NBzmQ8— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 5, 2022
In this clip, Elam comes off the edge on a corner (Cobra) blitz. This isn’t exactly perfect tackling technique, as he dives inside and drags the ball-carrier down, but he gets the job down. Elam is a reliable tackler in these types of situations. It is in the open field that he has an issue. That is a correctable problem.
Andrew Booth Jr. laughs at your TB Swing pic.twitter.com/oPdAPlNDSk— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 6, 2022
As the clip above demonstrates, a swing or a bubble screen in Booth’s direction is doomed for failure.
Booth is excellent at disengaging from blocks, and he always goes for the big hit. When Booth hits a ball-carrier, he doesn’t aim for their hips, it aims for their soul.
Booth dive pic.twitter.com/JwaSCHClRJ— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 6, 2022
But he has a tendency to dive at the ball-carrier’s legs, which can make him an unreliable tackier. He is so aggressive that he wants to make the tackle right now, but he needs to take another step (or two) to get in position and keep his head and eyes up. Similar to Elam’s tackling issue, with good coaching, Booth can fix this problem.
Elam with the bail tech. Would like to see him get involved in the tackle pic.twitter.com/qHF9XQ87yN— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 5, 2022
Elam is at the top of the screen in this clip. He turns and opens his hips, running into the deep field zone in an impressive display of athleticism. When the ball is completed, he is in position to hem in the receiver, but he just waits for the ball to come to him. He doesn’t get involved in the play. This scares me more than any missed tackle.
He’s technically doing his job, but that’s all he’s doing. He’s not relentlessly pursuing the ball. I’ve seen this in his run defense as well. He plays his role, but it’s almost like he is hoping the ball won’t come in his direction. It’s like he doesn’t want to be the one who has to make a play.
Booth with a great effort play pic.twitter.com/rqt62oeETo— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 6, 2022
In contract, Booth always has a burning desire to make the play.
In the clip above, the ball breaks away from him, but he runs down the ball carrier.
This demonstrates a critical difference between the two.
Booth is really smart and a true competitor. He understands the defense he is playing and his role in it. When the ball declares itself, he is relentless in his pursuit. If not for the injury, he would be a pretty safe option in the first round. Elam is less consistent, but he makes more plays in coverage and his athletic traits give him a higher ceiling.
While much has been made of Elam’s poor tackling he and Booth, both have correctable issues in this department. The difference is that Elam’s open field misses and Booth’s big hits are all that gets highlighted. My concern is that Elam’s missed tackles may be a symptom of something else. Why is he reluctant to make a play in the open field? Answering that question will be the key to his success in the NFL.