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Buffalo Bulletin: James Cook – RB1



James Cook, Buffalo Bills, RB1

In the opening wave of free agency, the Buffalo Bills bid farewell to four-year starter Devin Singletary, leaving sophomore James Cook to take the reins of the team’s running back room. Some weren’t certain of the path ahead. With plenty of other running backs out there, many fans called for big-name signings, trades, and draft picks to be used to find the bell-cow running back that so many seem to adore.

James Cook, Buffalo Bills, Running Back, Carolina Panthers
Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

Despite that speculation, the general concensus across the NFL was that James Cook would lead the way in 2023. Still, we didn’t know the Bills’ plan for him. Now, after an offseason that saw no significant investments at RB, we understand their vision. Let’s get into it.

Looking Back To Look Forward

If we’re going to understand Cook’s role in 2023, we should first look at his 2022 season. We’ll start with some stats.

SnapsRush Yards (Per Att.)Rush TDRec. Yards (Per Catch)Rec. TD
301507 (5.7)2180 (8.6)1
James Cook 2022 Stats

James Cook’s 2022 season didn’t start off well, as he fumbled away his first career touch. After that moment, he didn’t turn the ball over again all season. He only got limited snaps as Ken Dorsey worked him into the offense, but at the season’s close he was arguably our most effective running back. Cook went from situational receiver to tandem runner alongside Devin Singletary, and did well.

James Cook Buffalo Bills Running Back Detroit Cleveland Browns
Nic Antaya/Getty Images

He showed us that he was more than just a speedy pass-catcher. In space he was extremely elusive, and in close quarters he showed remarkable ability to break arm-tackles. He was never a bull-back, able to simply run you over, but his surprising power was a boon for the Bills.

He ran crisp routes when moved outside, and was one of the team’s most effective outlets for Josh Allen in short-yardage situations. Though he showed himself to be capable as a receiver, catching passes from the slot and outside on both sides of the field, most of his receiving yards came from lining up in the backfield with Josh, and swinging out.

As a standard runner, Cook averaged a whopping 5.7 yards per carry. The sample size is admittedly smaller than most running backs, but his pace would have him amongst the league’s best if he matched that efficiency in a slightly larger role this season.

That ability to be effective on both pass and run plays from traditional running back alignments is critical to keep defenses guessing. He’s perceived as a receiving back, but that’s far from the truth. Though he played a role, he wasn’t just a role player. James Cook did it all in 2022.

The Running Back Room

He won’t be alone. Though the Buffalo Bills didn’t swing for the fences in free agency, they did create a diverse group of running backs with different skillsets. James Cook will be leading this rotation, but it’ll still be a team effort. Here’s who he’ll be sharing carries with.

Damien Harris

In one of their earlier offseason moves, the Bills brought in former Patriot Damien Harris. It was this move that set the stage for our 2023 RB Room. A clear role player who hits the spots that James Cook didn’t, Harris is a bruiser, if a little undersized.

Damien Harris, James Cook, Buffalo Bills
AP Photo/Winslow Townson

A red-zone and short yardage threat who battles through contact and forces defenders to be brave, it’s no wonder he powered his way to 15 TDs in 2021. Some injury issues may hamper his time on the field, but it’s a minor concern considering his limited role.

Nyheim Hines

Hines is part of the running back room, but he’s likely going to stick to his return duties. If Cook does go down, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Hines role expand, but he’s unlikely to see much of the field considering his archetype is so similar to their preferred rusher. Still, as a returner Hines was excellent; He’s capable of playing a role in this offense as a receiver or rusher should the need arise.

Latavius Murray

A late signing, happening post-draft, Latavius Murray is the ‘vet in the room’ that Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane so adore having. He provides much of what Damien Harris brings to the table, and those two could share carries in red-zone and short yardage situations.

Latavius Murray, James Cook, Running Back
Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports

Murray is by far the most successful and well-known back in this room, but has reached the twilight of his career. He came to the Buffalo Bills to finally win a Super Bowl, and he may get his chance.

Josh Allen

It would be remiss of us to not note Josh Allen’s contribution to this run game. He’s the focal point of this offense, and sometimes the best option is simply to let him check out of a play to Cook and into something else entirely. Either as a runner or as a QB looking to put the ball elsewhere, Josh Allen will inevitably control the career of James Cook as long as they’re on the Buffalo Bills roster.

James Cook – RB1

For the offense that Ken Dorsey likes to run, there is a clear first choice running back. James Cook is far and away the most qualified player to fit the offense we intend to use. He gives us everything that a prototypical running back offers, but his skills are distributed in a way that benefits the QB-first, pass-happy offense we expect. There are areas for improvement, certainly but, one year into his career, Cook has already shown himself capable of taking on the extra work.

I don’t do stat projections, but it’s not unreasonable to assume an increase in snaps to the level of Devin Singletary last season (709/65.4%), with a comparable number of carries (177) and targets (52). The distribution may vary with the differences in their playstyles, as Cook likely sees more receptions and less standard rush attempts, but the spirit of the role will be the same. He may bleed some red zone snaps to the other running backs, as the Buffalo Bills understand he operates best in space, but he’ll find scoring opportunities regardless.

James Cook, Buffalo Bills, Running Back, Josh Allen
AP Photo/Joshua Bessex

James Cook will be RB1 in this offense, spending more time on the field than off it. It will make defences play on their heels, act reactively, and force hesitation. The uncertainty and variability that players like James Cook and Dalton Kincaid lend to this offense is as valuable as their actual play.

These sorts of players create mismatches when the defense doesn’t know who to put on them. Are they blocking or running, and need a linebacker to take them down? Are they running routes and catching passes, requiring a cornerback or safety to cover them? That’s what James Cook can bring to this offense as a starter this season.

So, let’s let James ‘cook’, to use the popular turn of phrase. He’ll be burning defenses soon enough.

Like this piece? Check out the previous Buffalo Bulletin on CB/S Christian Benford, and where he plays in 2023.

The Buffalo Bulletin on Buffalo Fanatics is a weekly editorial by Iestyn Harris. Check back regularly for hot topics, riveting discussion, and, occasionally, some actual insight.

Original Featured Image: David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports; Composite by Iestyn Harris

One of the owners The Sports Wave, and a Journalist at Buffalo Fanatics, I'm an English immigrant living in Canada. A huge Buffalo Bills fan, I also love my Boston Celtics, Toronto Blue Jays, and Queens Park Rangers.

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