Whew, that was a lot. Thankfully, it appears that the 2022 Buffalo Bills offseason continued on a high note with a draft class that included eight total selections. From Kaiir Elam in the first round to Baylon Spector in the seventh, here’s a recap and analysis of the Bills’ incoming class of rookies.
First Round: CB Kaiir Elam (University of Florida)
There was a ton of chatter about how the Buffalo Bills would address the hole left from the departure of now-Steelers CB Levi Wallace. It definitely did not help knowing that All-Pro Tre’Davious White will be just over nine months removed from tearing his ACL once Week 1 rolls around.
Enter Elam, a physical and long corner (6’1”, 191 pounds, 30 and 7/8 inch arms) who plays with a chip on his shoulder. The Riviera Beach native earned a First-Team All-SEC selection in 2020, having matched up against the likes of NFL receivers DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, John Metchie III, Elijah Moore, Shi Smith, and Josh Palmer.
Elam’s 2021 tape may not have been as strong, but he played through a knee injury for most of the year, which goes to show how tough he is. Still, Elam showed off his high-level ball skills. He was strong in his matchup with Alabama’s crew this year that featured Metchie and First-Team All-American Jameson Williams.
I like the move in just about all facets. Although Elam would rather play bump-and-run press coverage, he has the capabilities of thriving in a zone-centric scheme. While he fills an immediate need at CB2, Elam has the skills to grow into a CB1 at some point.
He’s also a high-level athlete, even for as big as he is for a CB. Elam ran a 4.39 40-yard dash, leaped 37.5 inches in the vertical jump, and had a staggering 6.98 three-cone time.
I also like his lineage. He comes from a line of former NFL players with his father (Abram Elam) and uncle (Matt Elam). I’m not saying that’s the end all be all for a prospect, but it makes me more comfortable knowing his own family can show him the ropes of the NFL.
I also like the fact that Elam is a super young prospect (he turns 21 on May 5). So as good as he is today, he’s only got room to grow.
My only issue with the pick, and this is nit-picky, is I don’t think it was necessary to move up two picks from No. 25 to No. 23. Especially seeing as the next CB was not taken until No. 35th overall in the second round.
With that said, if Brandon Beane, Sean McDermott, Leslie Frazier, and the rest of the defensive staff felt Elam was the guy to go with, there’s nothing wrong with being aggressive.
Second Round: RB James Cook (University of Georgia)
I know it stings seeing as the New York Jets add Breece Hall and the Seattle Seahawks select Kenneth Walker III, respectively. But getting Cook makes a lot more sense when you really think about it.
Hall and Walker are more traditional bell-cow backs. But is that what the Buffalo Bills need? Not necessarily. Improving in the running game was definitely a must, looking back on the peaks and valleys of the 2021 campaign.
But Buffalo has become a pass-happy attack over the past two seasons. Since Josh Allen’s emergence in 2020, only Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, and Patrick Mahomes have attempted more passes in that span. While some of that may be because of the inconsistent rushing attack, part of that is because it was a strength for the Bills.
So what do you do when you have an elite passing game? Why not draft the best receiving back in the class?
I know it’s probably been overstated to this point, but Cook has elite hands for the position; he racked up 67 catches while in Georgia. But that doesn’t tell the story on the receiver-like skills he has as a route runner.
Cook is an effective running back too, though. Despite sharing the backfield with D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, Zamir White, and Brian Herrien while in Athens, Ga., Cook holds a career 6.5 yards-per-carry average. He also averaged 7.5 yards per touch throughout his career with UGA.
I think the combine really solidified things for Cook as well. He posted a 4.42 40-yard dash time, with solid 10-yard (1.54) and 20-yard (2.59) splits, and a strong 10’4” broad jump.
While he may not be the same player as his All-Pro big bro Dalvin, he reminds me of another All-Pro back: Alvin Kamara. And while the comparison is not exact, they have similar measurables, but more importantly, similar playing styles.
The Buffalo Bills should find ways to feed Cook early on, like how the Saints used Kamara in his rookie year. The 2017 third-rounder had 120 carries that season, caught 81 passes, and had another 11 touches in the return game.
Cook may not be asked to return in Buffalo, but new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has to be enamored with the many ways he can deploy his new weapon.
Third Round: LB Terrel Bernard (Baylor University)
Bernard is eerily similar to his now Buffalo Bills teammate in Matt Milano. So much so, the former Baylor Bear has crafted his game in the mold of the former Boston College backer.
“I think you’ve seen a shift within the last few years of the NFL, kind of the run-and-chase style, the more coverage aspect to combat the passing game now… But it’s been crazy being able to just model my game after guys like Matt Milano. He’s probably one of my favorite players that I’ve been studying off this whole process, so having the opportunity to learn from guys like him is gonna be amazing.”Bernard on his play style (via BuffaloBills.com)
Bernard will have a viable teacher to learn from in Milano. But he can also learn under Tremaine Edmunds as well. Bernard has the capabilities to play both inside and outside LB. However, I project him long-term as a weakside linebacker.
He may be built more like a safety (6’1”, 220 pounds), but Bernard could be one of the most athletic linebackers in the league next season. He had a 4.59 40 time, 35.5” vertical leap, 10’3” broad jump, a 7.03 three-cone, and 22 bench press reps.
Bernard’s motor and athleticism were on display as a blitzer in 2021, as he racked up a career-high 7.5 sacks. He also totaled over 100 tackles for the second time in his career (103), finished with 12.5 tackles for loss, and had four passes defended. The La Porte, Tex. native’s most notable performance was, of course, in the Sugar Bowl, where he totaled 17 tackles (10 solo, 7 assisted) and two sacks.
Bernard was on pace for another 100-tackle season in 2020 — he racked up 55 in five games (11 stops per game) — but he missed the last two games of Baylor’s shortened season due to injury. Regardless, Bernard was one of the most respected linebackers in the Big 12. He earned three All-Conference nods, including a First-Team selection in 2021.
To me, Bernard is a safe pick because he just does his job. He rarely makes mistakes in his reads and he’s a plus coverage defender in space. He may not always make the wow play, but he won’t hurt you on defense either. I believe, if he adds weight to his frame and is deployed to attack downhill on the backside of plays, he can contribute down the line in the Buffalo Bills’ lineup.
The biggest thing here, though, is that Bernard provides great depth for Milano and Edmunds. And, seeing as Edmunds remains without a long-term extension, Bernard could be in the mix to replace Edmunds if he leaves in 2023.
Fifth Round: WR Khalil Shakir (Boise State University)
The Buffalo Bills must’ve really been feeling this similar profile approach in 2022. Like Bernard was to Milano, Shakir has a similar body-type (6’0”, 190 pounds) to All-Pro Bills wideout Stefon Diggs.
Shakir worked primarily out of the slot at Boise State, but he can also play outside, as he excelled in contested situations. He recorded three consecutive seasons with 50-plus receptions, 700-plus receiving yards, and six or more scores. Additionally, his 92.0 career PFF grade was the highest among any wide receivers in the 2022 draft class.
The 2021 season was Shakir’s best yet. He finished with career highs in receptions (77), receiving yards (1,117), touchdowns (7), and yards per catch (14.5). Shakir is simply an offensive weapon, as he totaled 414 rusing yards with four TDs on 5.8 yards per carry in his college career. He also showed he can contribute in the return game when asked.
Shakir is a good-not-great athlete (4.43 40 time, 10’4” broad jump, 34.5” vertical jump), but he knows how to win on routes with more than just his physical traits. He may never grow to be a No. 1 receiver, but he’s the type of receiver who should contribute as a complimentary piece right away.
It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes Shakir to get acclimated to Dorsey’s system. Even if Shakir faces some bumps in the transition, he’s talented enough with the ball in his hands for Dorsey to scheme up something for him.
This move is another for the the long-term. If Jamison Crowder does not return in 2023, Shakir could be called upon to replace him in the slot. Shakir’s fifth-round value could be higher if he becomes one of Allen’s top targets over the next few years.
Sixth Round: P Matt Araiza (San Diego State)
Bills Mafia really spoke this one into existence. After Matt Haack’s dreadful 2021 campaign, where he averaged 42.9 yards per punt (fifth-lowest in the NFL), it was clear that Buffalo needed to upgrade at punter.
So it only makes sense to do so with the “Punt God”.
Araiza had a record-breaking 2021 season. He had six punts go for 70 or more yards and set the new NCAA record for yards-per-punt average (51.2). He also had two 80-yard punts, with his season-high of 86 yards coming against San Jose State.
Araiza showed off his strong left leg all 2021. The San Diego, Calif. native had at least one punt go 52 yards or longer in every game and 37 of his punts landed inside the 20. He also had 62 touchbacks on 73 kick-offs last year.
While he won’t be asked to kick, Araiza finished his Aztecs career with 50 made field goals.
What’s even crazier about the Bills selecting Araiza is that he was just the third punter selected in the class. Maybe Jordan Stout and Jake Camarda were better fits for the Ravens and Buccaneers, respectively. But it’s intriguing to think two punters went in the fourth round over the much-hyped Araiza.
I’m sure the Buffalo Bills were happy to take him in the sixth. And, if Bills Mafia gets its next wish, Araiza could replace Haack before the end of training camp.
Sixth Round: CB Christian Benford (Villanova University)
Benford was one of the top FCS cornerbacks, as he earned two First-Team All-Colonial Athletic Association selections in 2021 (spring and fall). Benford was also the CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording five interceptions, six pass break ups, and 49 tackles in 2018.
Last season was his best at Villanova. The Baltimore, Md. native was named an FCS First-Team All-American, leading the nation with 18 pass breakups and tied-second in the nation with seven INTs.
Benford has a knack for finding the ball with his 14 career picks and 47 PBUs.
The former Wildcat is a rugged player and brings a lot of size for the position (6’1”, 208 pounds). In fact, a move to safety — or at least snaps there — has been tossed around for the 21-year-old. That makes sense for someone with his testing numbers (4.53 40-time, 35” vertical, 10’4” broad jump, 17 bench press reps) .
Benford should also be able to find a role on the team as a special teams player. That should allow him to find snaps early on as he looks for his fit in the secondary.
The Buffalo Bills got better by adding a blue-collar DB that brings versatility, ball skills, and an attitude needed to thrive in the secondary. McDermott should get the most out of the FCS product.
Sixth Round: OT Luke Tenuta (Virginia Tech)
Tenuta brings a versatile skill set to the field (15 career starts at RT, 11 at LT) and a massive frame at 6’8” and 320 pounds. The former Hokie was regarded favorably in the ACC. He earned Third-Team and Honorable Mention All-Conference selections in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
While I believe Tenuta could add value to the Buffalo Bills roster as a swing tackle, his physical skills also limit his outlook. He has rather short arms for a player of his size (32 and 5/8 inches), and has a narrow build, almost like a power forward in basketball.
Tenuta is a good enough athlete to get out in space on movement plays (like outside zone) or with pulling. And he can definitely cover people up with his 6’8” frame. However, he really is no more than an average athlete, even for the tackle position. (He posted a 5.41 40-time, 26” vertical, 8’8” broad jump, 4.77 20-yard shuttle, and 19 bench press reps.)
It must be noted too that Luke is the son of long-time defensive coach Jon Tenuta, who now coaches with the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers. This shows is another encouraging lineage, signifying his knowledge of the game and his passion to pursue an NFL career.
I think Tenuta’s best bet to making this Bills roster will be to focus on building up his strength. It’s one thing to be 6’8”, 320 pounds, but he looks a little too lean at times in the trenches. Adding just 10 pounds of muscle would give Tenuta a better chance to make his way up the depth chart.
That’ll be a tough task regardless with Dion Dawkins, Spencer Brown, Tommy Doyle, and David Queesenbery all ahead of him. Tenuta’s will likely either be a reserve lineman or on the practice squad.
Seventh Round: LB Baylon Specter (Clemson University)
Another undersized linebacker prospect (6’0”, 233 pounds), Spector is built more like a traditional LB than his fellow rookie teammate Bernard. He was a two-year starter while at Clemson and was a leader on the team as a captain in 2021.
Spector is a very athletic linebacker and plays light on his toes, even when attacking downhill in the run game. He’s very fluid in his movement and rarely misses tackles.
He also stepped up against good competition last season. First, he recorded eight tackles and an interception against the eventual National Champion Georgia Bulldogs. Then again he racked up a career-best 19 stops against North Carolina State. Spector had one other 10-tackle game in 2021 (10 vs Syracuse on Oct. 15).
Spector’s solid coverage skills make more sense when you see his combine results (4.60 40-time, 36” vertical, 10’2” broad jump). He followed that up with a fairly strong showing at his pro day as well (19 bench press reps, 6.91 3-cone drill, 4.18 20-yard shuttle).
Spector played in a similar four-man, two-linebacker front at Clemson, working primarily as the weakside LB. He projects to do the same with the Bills as a Milano understudy. But, like Bernard, he has the ability to move inside and work as Edmunds’ backup as well. Not only does his athleticism make him a great fit for today’s NFL and as a piece in the McDermott-Frazier defense, it may give a chance to make his way as a special teams player.
Also fitting the Buffalo Bills culture mold in recent years, Spector seems like a high-character guy above all. Not only was he a team captain, Spector was a two-time All-Academic selection while at Clemson. Players with his type of skill and background are the types of gems that go from seventh-round pick to making the 53-man roster.