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Buffalo Bills training camp preview, 2022: Running backs

Is Devin Singletary the guy moving forward, or what’s the split going to look like?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills have lacked elite talent at the running back position since LeSean McCoy left following the 2018 season. One could make the argument that they even lacked elite talent during that 2018 season, since Shady wasn’t quite as explosive as he had been in years past.

While McCoy’s calling card during his career was his breakaway speed and video game-like agility, the state of affairs in the Bills’ running back room entering the 2022 offseason relied more on timing and “keeping ahead of the stick.”

With the addition of a second-round pick, the highest they’ve invested in a running back since 2010 (C.J. Spiller), the Bills may very well have added enough talent in the room to make a dent. But if that draft pick, James Cook, isn’t going to be the lead back, what is the split going to look like?

In today’s edition of our state of the Buffalo Bills’ roster series, we examine the running backs.

Devin Singletary

Contract status: Final year of rookie contract ($2,798,956 cap hit, $258,956 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 9/3/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games, 16 starts, 718 snaps (59.93% of offensive total)
Key 2021 statistics: 188 carries, 870 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 7 touchdowns, 50 targets, 40 receptions, 228 yards, 5.7 yards per reception, 1 touchdown, 5 fumbles

For the first dozen games of last season, Singletary played over half of the offensive snaps just four times. In those 12 games, Singletary rushed for 495 yards on 108 carries, scoring two touchdowns. In the season’s final seven games, including the postseason, Singletary’s snap share never dipped below 76%, and he thrived as a result of the larger workload. He handled 106 carries and totaled 482 yards and eight touchdowns. Was that a harbinger of things to come for Singletary as he enters the last year of his rookie contract, or was the increased workload borne out of necessity given the lack of impact options at the position outside of him?

Zack Moss

Contract status: Third year of four-year rookie contract ($1,237,354 cap hit, $457,208 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 12/15/2022)
2021 Playing time: 13 games, 380 snaps (31.72% of offensive total)
Key 2021 statistics: 96 carries, 345 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, 4 touchdowns, 32 targets, 23 receptions, 197 yards, 8.6 yards per reception, 2 fumbles

For a time, it looked like Moss would overtake Singletary as the top back in the offense. However, his plodding style never quite allowed the team to gain any sort of momentum in the running game. By the end of the year, Moss’s role had been reduced to that of emergency substitute, as he really only entered the game when Singletary was too winded to continue. It’s hard to see the Bills releasing Moss, but it’s also hard to see him contributing much moving forward.

James Cook

Contract status: Signed a four-year rookie deal this offseason ($1,060,374 cap hit)
Age: 22 (23 on 9/25/2022)
2021 Playing time: 15 games for Georgia Bulldogs
Key 2021 statistics: 113 rushes for 728 yards, 7 touchdowns on the ground, 27 receptions for 284 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air

Captain James Cook was a British explorer in the 18th century. This is a different James Cook. This Cook was a second-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft as the Bills looked to shore up their passing game and rushing attack in one fell swoop. Cook is a dynamic pass-catcher and can line up wide or behind the quarterback and still make an impact. It remains to be seen how he’ll be worked into the Bills’ offense under new coordinator Ken Dorsey, but he has a chance to get a significant workload in his rookie season. Even so, it probably won’t be as a workhorse between the tackles.

Taiwan Jones

Contract status: Signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum this offseason
Age: 33 (34 on 7/26/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games, 306 special teams snaps (70.51% of team total), one offensive snap (.08% of team total)
Key 2021 statistics: 6 tackles, 1 fumble recovery

The special teams ace played more snaps in that phase of the game, behind only Tyler Matakevich and Reggie Gilliam, but he only appeared on one offensive snap. Jones is valued heavily as a leader and a special teams contributor, and has a path to the roster in that role even with very limited offensive possibilities.

Reggie Gilliam

Contract status for 2021: Entering final year of UDFA contract ($901,667 cap hit; $6,667 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 8/20/2022)
2021 Playing time: 16 games, 5 starts, 315 special teams snaps (72.58% of team total), 155 offensive snaps (12.94% of team total)
Key 2021 statistics: 3 carries, 3 yards, 1 yard per carry, 5 targets, 3 receptions, 23 yards, 3 tackles

The man they call Sledge was once again a valuable contributor on special teams, playing more snaps on that unit than anyone other than Tyler Matakevich. He played quite a bit in the early going, as he had double-digit offensive snaps in four of Buffalo’s first five games. He disappeared for a bit in the middle, but as the season wore on, his role on offense expanded again. Gilliam played 9, 15, 18, 19, and 16 snaps in Buffalo’s final five games, helping to pave the way for Devin Singletary’s late-season resurgence.

Duke Johnson

Contract status: Signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum this offseason
Age: 28 (29 on 9/23/2022)
2021 Playing time: 5 games (4 starts) for Miami Dolphins (12.91% of offensive snaps)
Key 2021 statistics: 71 rushes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns, 4 receptions for 41 yards

Despite spending the 2021 offseason completely off NFL rosters, Johnson spent 11 days on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad in September before finding a spot on Miami’s taxi squad in October. He was promoted to the active roster on December 19, setting a career high with 107 yards and two touchdowns in their game against the New York Jets, and signed to the 53-man roster the next day to finish out the year. He was the veteran security blanket signed before they drafted Cook, and it’s hard to see him on a path to the final roster without an injury now that the rookie is in the mix.

Raheem Blackshear

Contract status for 2021:
Age: 24 (25 on 8/20/2022)
2021 Playing time: 13 games for Virginia Tech
Key 2021 statistics: 133 rushes for 757 yards and 6 touchdowns, 25 receptions for 249 yards and 1 touchdown for Virginia Tech

Blackshear transferred to Virginia Tech after his first three college seasons at Rutgers and topped 1000 yards from scrimmage in his final season. He’s a perfect practice squad candidate with a chance to take over for Singletary or Moss a year from now. He returned six kickoffs and one punt last season, so perhaps he could factor into that role, as well.

The pecking order seems firmly established, but the division of labor is something to keep an eye on in camp. How much are they going to put on Cook’s plate as a rookie? They loaded up Moss and Singletary in their first season, so they don’t seem to be shy about working in the new player.

In 2021, it was Singletary (60%), Moss (32%), and Matt Breida (7%) in snap counts. Even if Singletary stays at 60%, with Cook’s ability to line up outside, you could see more than 100% of the offensive snaps being played by running backs.

It’s also pretty likely Gilliam sticks for the third year of his deal and potentially even signs a contract extension during camp or the beginning part of the season.

It doesn’t make sense for the Bills to add anyone here now or into camp unless there is an injury. The Bills have a great mix of youth and experience here and seem to have all their bases covered.