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Buffalo Bills rookie review: James Cook ascending, others scratched

A curious move to sit one highly drafted rookie

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills are back as the No. 1 seed in the AFC after a tumultuous few weeks due to injury and lackluster play. The Bills cruised to their win against the division foe New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football, playing their third straight game away from Orchard Park, NY.

The Bills seemed determined to kick it into cruise control with the oddities of the last few weeks. The defense played a sound game led by the returns of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and edge rusher Gregory Rousseau to the lineup. Quarterback Josh Allen had a casual passing game with more than usual off of his plate. The Bills were getting a head start on their nine days of rest on tap before next Sunday’s AFC East bout against the Jets.

The rookies were a little bit banged up, and there was a shocking scratch from the lineup this week. Let’s talk rookie performances from Week 13’s win against New England.

Kaiir Elam, Cornerback

The most shocking thing to happen on Thursday night may have been the Bills’ decision to sit rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam as a healthy scratch. With Christian Benford on Injured Reserve, it seemed extremely likely Elam would be in line for plenty of reps with the first-team defense. But, for now, that’s not the case. The Bills chose veteran practice-squad member Xavier Rhodes and Cam Lewis over the young rookie this week. Elam has been far from perfect this year, but a healthy scratch seems like an unreasonable assessment of the talented youngster. Perhaps this is an attempt to spark something underneath a young player, but he’s seemingly outperformed fellow teammate Dane Jackson throughout the year. This is a puzzling development to watch.

James Cook, Running back

Twenty-touch James Cook? Twenty-touch James Cook. We just talked about a rookie who might be in the doghouse, but Cook is trending in the opposite direction. He looked uncomfortable in the NFL after making his first handful of NFL appearances. But recent weeks have shown that the NFL legacy talent is going to be a big factor for the remainder of the season. Cook had 20 catches for 105 yards. Veteran Devin Singletary, who had received the most touches of any back each week prior this season, had just 13 in this one. It may not be every week, but there’s a real chance Cook leads the running backs in snaps and touches from here on out.

Cook’s most impressive rep came on a 28-yard burst through the teeth of the Patriots’ defense. Check out this breakdown of how the play happened below.

Terrel Bernard, Linebacker

Bernard’s 2022 production for a rookie Day Two pick has been disappointing in many regards. Bernard did play 17 special teams snaps in this game, but he didn’t register a defensive snap. It’s just his rookie season, but Bernard’s trajectory is trending down for a selection that already looked questionable at the time it was made.

Khalil Shakir, Wide receiver

Shakir had his first catch in a few weeks against the Patriots for 10 yards. He’s garnered some snaps this year, but the targets haven’t been there for the rookie fifth-rounder. Shakir’s flash against the Pittsburgh Steelers early on in the season continues to loom large. Gathering more rapport with Josh Allen heading into another offseason should help Shakir be a larger part of the offense in 2023.

Christian Benford, Cornerback

Benford was placed on IR with an oblique injury prior to the game against New England. It’s possible we’ve seen the last of Benford in the regular season after an injury-riddled rookie year. Benford has shown promise but should be lumped in the caliber of player as Dane Jackson and Elam thus far. Of course, Benford’s sixth-round status alters expectations versus that of Elam.

Baylon Spector, Linebacker

Spector was a healthy inactive once again for the Bills with a fully healthy linebacker corps.