Looking at the Buffalo Bills’ current roster, there are plenty of rookies still jockeying for both a starting role or simply a spot on the roster for the 2022 season. With the Bills’ organization a generally known commodity, rookie performances tend to steal the show for the Super Bowl hopefuls. Every rookie draft selection received playing time during the Week 2 preseason game against the Denver Broncos this past Saturday. Honing in on how each rookie performed should give a more defined look at where the 2022 draft class stands with just over two weeks before the NFL regular season kicks off.
CB Kaiir Elam
There is no better place to start than the Bills’ first-round pick. It’s been an up-and-down summer for Elam who comes into the league highly regarded from SEC powerhouse Florida. He’s had days in camp where he’s been victimized while learning to play more reps as a “hands-off” player in the league. However, there are plenty of glimmers of hope featuring back and forth with wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Elam put together an encouraging performance against the Indianapolis Colts during Week 1 of the preseason—with the exception of one penalty. It was a much more quiet performance in Week 2 while facing the Broncos. The most notable play featuring Elam was a facemask penalty that extended a Denver drive after the unit created a third-down stop. Elam missed the target on his “jam” at the line, which resulted in his finger gripping the receiver’s facemask. Elam played 26 snaps—he didn’t record a stat but also didn’t allow any receptions. The arrow is pointing neutral with the chances of him starting Week 1 looking likely should Tre’Davious White not be ready to return from injury.
RB James Cook
Cook had much more room to operate during Week 2 of preseason action. The Bills’ second-round pick has only seen nine touches in preseason thus far, but he made the most of the five he received against the Broncos on Saturday. He showcased his ability to quickly chew up yards and run through arm tackles with 50 yards on just five touches. Watching Cook run makes you want more, which is a positive sign for the rookie. To their credit, fellow runners Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have also shown a lot in the preseason. Cook’s ability to be a security blanket in the passing game makes him a unique factor in Buffalo’s offense. Cook’s arrow is pointing up heading into the final preseason game.
LB Terrel Bernard
The third-round pick played 20 defensive snaps against Denver, but he didn’t register a stat. It’s likely that Bernard will be the Bills’ third linebacker with versatility to play as a Mike, Will, or overhang player. There was good and bad from Bernard in the first week of preseason action, but he’s still getting the first shot behind Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Linebacker Andre Smith and rookie Baylon Spector (more on him later) are other players who have performed well. Bernard’s competing for snaps with both. Smith will be serving a six-game suspension to start the year. Bernard likely has a small role on the defense in 2022.
WR Khalil Shakir
Shakir has been a darling throughout training camp and the preseason. All of the things the fifth-round pick did well in college are translating extremely well to the next level. He turned three targets into three receptions and 59 yards receiving against the Broncos. While facing the Colts, Shakir showed off his body control and ability to work the sideline. Shakir put on a clinic against Denver, showcasing how to find soft spots in zone coverage. Former Bills WR Cole Beasley was famous for his masterclass in finding pockets against zone. Shakir could be a younger and more dynamic player than Beasley while doing similar things well. The rookie also provides value as a punt returner and may very well win that job come the regular season. His trajectory seems to be firmly full steam ahead, due north.
P Matt Araiza
With news breaking Monday that the Bills released veteran punter Matt Haack, the job is now rookie P Matt Araiza’s for the 2022 season. Perhaps forecasting the move, Araiza didn’t punt against the Broncos, but he did hold six Tyler Bass extra points. the sixth-rounder out of San Diego State blasted his lone punt of the preseason 82 yards. Araiza is new to holding, but he’s seemingly picked it up very well with Bass being a perfect 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-7 on extra points with Araiza holding this preseason. He’s still raw at his position, but Araiza’s potential is through the roof.
CB Christian Benford
Benford, like Elam, had a very quiet day on Saturday afternoon. He posted one tackle to ensure a short-yardage gain, but he was pretty quiet on 22 other reps. That’s a good thing for a young rookie playing in his second professional game. It’s likely that Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam open the season as the starters should White be out with an injury, but Benford continues to knock on the door and refuses to concede the competition. The cornerback competition still seems far from over.
OT Luke Tenuta
Tenuta has struggled with his reps at both tackle spots in the preseason, and it’s unlikely he makes the roster at this point. There is a good chance he’s one of the linemen the Bills retain for their practice squad following cuts to field a 53-man roster.
LB Baylon Spector
One of the most notable things to point out about Spector against Denver is that he opened the game as a starter on the kick return unit. The Bills elected to rest a few special teams aces on Saturday, (including linebacker Tyler Matakevich) but Spector’s best shot to make the initial 53-man roster is as a special teams contributor. Edmunds, Milano, Bernard, and Matakevich are likely locks for the team. Andre Smith’s absence likely leaves Spector battling Joe Giles-Harris and Tyrel Dodson for the last linebacker spot on the 53-man roster. Against the Broncos, Spector quietly led the team in tackles and had a couple of nice coverage reps that displayed his plus-athleticism. He sits firmly on the roster bubble heading into the final week of preseason.