The Buffalo Bills enjoyed a bye during Week 7, and will play 11 games in a row to close the 2022 regular season. A 5-1 record currently allows the Bills to control their own destiny as a potential No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Without a game from last weekend to analyze, we have an opportunity to summarize what we’ve seen from the rookies through the first six games of the season. Let’s dive into the ins and outs of every drafted rookie who still remains on the Bills’ roster.
CB Kaiir Elam (Round 1)
Elam didn’t begin the season as a defensive starter despite the first-round hype coming into training camp. It was veteran cornerback Dane Jackson and fellow rookie cornerback Christian Benford who received the first snaps against the Los Angeles Rams. Elam could have gotten discouraged with having to rotate snaps with a sixth-round rookie while cornerback Tre’Davious White remained out with injury. But that never happened, and Elam seized every moment presented to him. Even more so, Elam had the opportunity to start and play a ton of snaps with injuries to Jackson and Benford. It paid off.
He hasn’t been without his struggles, including a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was picked on early and often. But he came back and capped a mostly ugly performance with an interception—showing his thick skin and ability to move on from the last play each and every snap. Elam had his best showing of the season playing high-volume snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs and securing an impressive first-drive interception of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Elam is well on his way to a long NFL career. Head coach Sean McDermott will have an interesting choice to make post-bye with the full crop of corners, including a locked-in starter with White’s return imminent.
Elam’s stats through Week 6: 29 tackles, two INTs, and three passes defended.
RB James Cook (Round 2)
It was as ugly of a start as you can have for Cook, when he fumbled the very first regular-season carry of his career against the Rams. From there, Cook hasn’t really seized on his small number of opportunities, enduring multiple drops in the passing game over the course of the early goings this season. Cook’s best moment came on an inside zone rush where he hit a cutback lane and outraced the Pittsburgh’s defense to the end zone.
Outside of garbage time, Cook has barely played this season. Perhaps post-bye will bring more opportunity to the rookie second-rounder out of Georgia. But it’s been far from a fairy tale start for Cook in the high-powered Bills offense.
Cook’s stats through Week 6: 19 carries, 97 yards, one TD; four receptions, 37 yards
LB Terrel Bernard (Round 3)
The selection of Bernard has become more head-scratching as the season wears on. The Bills don’t have much trust in him to log important snaps in games where a reserve linebacker is forced into action. It’s been players like linebacker Tyrel Dodson and defensive back Siran Neal (to match up with Travis Kelce) who’ve received the nod over him.
Bernard is currently earning his keep as a core special teams player this season, where he covers kicks and punts at a high level. A third-round pick tends to do more contributing on their team in year one, but that hasn’t been the case for Bernard as part of a Super Bowl-caliber Bills team.
Bernard’s stats through Week 6: 13 tackles
WR Khalil Shakir (Round 5)
Shakir started his career off as a surprise inactive in Week 1. The fourth-round selection had been listed as the team’s starting punt returner heading into the season, but he didn’t fulfill the role until veteran wide receiver Jamison Crowder went down with an injury. Shakir has stepped up with every opportunity he has been given in 2022, with no bigger performance than the one he had against the Steelers when starting slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie was out with a concussion. Shakir caught three passes for 75 yards and a score in that contest, showing off his ability to haul in the ball through traffic and perform after the catch.
His snaps decreased once again in the game against the Chiefs, but McKenzie had quite the rough performance. There’s a good chance Shakir’s snaps ramp up if McKenzie continues to struggle, and if Shakir continues to make plays in multiple ways. Shakir is a post-bye rookie we should keep a very close eye on.
Shakir’s stats through Week 6: 11 targets, six receptions, 112 yards, one TD; two punt returns, six yards; one kick return, 34 yards
CB Christian Benford (Round 6)
The sixth-rounder got the nod on the first drive of the season over first-round pick Elam. Benford performed admirably in the first couple weeks of the season, where he was rarely tested, and brought a fantastic physicality to the position. A broken hand in the middle of the Miami Dolphins game in Week 3 forced him to sit out for two weeks.
Benford was in a partial rotation with Elam upon his return to the lineup in Week 6, but he didn’t get the nod to start. That could be due to the fact that he’s coming off of injury, or it could be the play of Elam forcing the Bills’ hand to keep him on the field.
Regardless of where he ends up in the lineup after the bye, Benford has far exceeded expectations for a sixth-round corner—and could remain active on game days moving forward. His ability to push and essentially beat out Elam to begin the season shows the faith the team has in Benford’s ability as a football player.
Benford’s stats through Week 6: seven tackles, one pass defended
LB Baylon Spector (Round 7)
Spector has been a healthy inactive for two of the first six games of the season. He’s played in mop-up duty on defense in one game (Pittsburgh), in which he played 12 defensive snaps. When he’s active, Spector is a factor on special teams.
The Bills’ release of veteran linebacker Andre Smith after he came off the suspended list is a positive testament into how Buffalo feels about Spector as a depth player at this point in time. He’s a stash player who, barring injury, will look to make more of a mark on defense in 2023.