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Buffalo Bills’ 2022 rookie class shows promise, even as season ends

Two rookies were playing their best football in January

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have put a bow on another playoff run that ended too soon. Clouds of disappointment have rained over the team since the beating they took at the hands and feet of the Cincinnati Bengals. Many questions have been brought up about the Bills’ personnel and player usage, as both sides of the ball stalled in critical moments.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much to get excited about in a 17-point playoff loss. Buffalo will now look forward to the offseason to make the necessary roster tweaks in hopes of finally reaching that ever-elusive Super Bowl berth.

With Sunday’s performances in mind, let’s talk about how the rookies performed. It wasn’t the most fruitful year for the Bills’ youngsters, but a couple of players are keeping the light on in hopes of taking meaningful leaps going into their sophomore seasons.

Kaiir Elam, CB

For as loud (in a good way) that Elam’s play was in Buffalo’s wild card win over the Miami Dolphins, he was rarely involved over the course of the broadcast against the Bengals. Instead, Joe Burrow and Cincinnati’s offense elected to attack Buffalo’s linebackers and veteran corners Dane Jackson and Tre’Davious White. As we’ve said multiple times throughout the course of the season, having a quiet game at the cornerback position is a good thing. Elam elevated his game in the biggest moments during his rookie season, and he was playing his best ball of the year by far during the team’s playoff run. In fact, his was the best corner play by any player on the roster over the last two games. Even when his playing time was stripped, Elam came back and played at an even higher level. If there was one bright spot to take away from Sunday, it was the play by Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2022.

James Cook, RB

Some bright spots during the course of the regular season didn’t carry over into the playoffs for Cook. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was forced into playing a script predicated on passing the ball and doing nearly everything through quarterback Josh Allen. There were only 11 total carries for running backs in this game; Cook received five of them for 13 yards. The Bills’ offensive line isn’t good enough to support a sound, established run game over a consistent game-by-game basis. The line should be a priority in the offseason to allow Cook to be even more effective going into year two.

Terrel Bernard, LB

Players are allowed to get better. That much is an obvious fact in this sport. But the reality is that Bernard was a healthy inactive as a third-round pick in this Divisional Round matchup. It’s not fair to declare Bernard a bust yet, but the arrow is trending down on what the hope and expectation should be for him moving forward.

Khalil Shakir, WR

Shakir was the Bills’ second leading receiver in this game, posting two receptions for 40 yards on two targets. Shakir was clearly more involved in the twilight of the 2022 season, while his overall play was enough for promise to remain strong heading into 2023. His talent shone through such that he’s a likely candidate to factor heavily into the receiver rotation next season. Wide receiver will be discussed often as a position of need for Buffalo this offseason. Wide receiver Gabe Davis was slow-played as a rookie in 2020 before pulling into a primary role at the end of 2021 and certainly into 2022. I’m not saying Shakir should be one of the team’s primary options next year, but he has earned a shot at an enhanced role moving forward. The play below shows off Shakir’s ability to fight through contact and his feel for zone spacing.

Christian Benford, CB

Benford was a healthy inactive once again. He never factored into the lineup after returning from Injured Reserve for the second time. Head coach Sean McDermott mentioned him as a potential position-change candidate in his end-of-season press conference.

Baylon Spector, LB

He’s been consistently inactive over the second half of the season. The Bills have needed extra bodies at injured positions in recent weeks, which has made Spector an easy healthy inactive candidate. Spector outperformed expectations by simply being on the team in 2022, considering he was a seventh-round pick.