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Buffalo Bills 2022 NFL Draft class year in review

It was an up-and-down year for the rookies, but there is still upside

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are going to need their young players on rookie contracts to come through in a big way sooner than later if the team wants to continue competing at the highest level in the AFC in future seasons. The Bills have done a solid job on hitting B-level players in the draft. There haven’t been any pure disaster classes. But it hasn’t been pretty in recent years for general manger Brandon Beane’s resume. Players like Gregory Rousseau, Ed Oliver, and Gabe Davis are solid starters drafted since 2019. But those players aren’t world beaters in any way.

The Bills are relying some on their 2022 rookie class to play a role in the team’s ceiling as the franchise rides the rails of a tight budget — due to star quarterback Josh Allen eating a sizable portion of the salary cap. Year one for the 2022 class brought mixed results with no sure-fire stud emerging among the group. Buffalo needs an A-level player or two from their last class. There’s still time for that narrative to change heading into year two. Let’s break down the 2022 rookie class on a player-by-player level.

CB Kaiir Elam

2022 stats: 15 GP; 47 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 passes defended

Elam was perceived to be just what the Bills needed post-draft. He represented a potential final piece to an elite puzzle the Bills had formulated after signing edge rusher Von Miller to a monster contract in the offseason. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for the first-round pick.

He never took the reins as a starting corner on this team — splitting reps to start the season with fellow rookie sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford. Even with Benford hurt, Elam split much of the season with veteran cornerback Dane Jackson. Jackson struggled throughout the year and, still, Elam was unable to unseat him. I believe the Bills’ best interest was to make Elam a full-time player earlier in the season, but that wasn’t head coach Sean McDermott’s plan for him.

What Elam provides is exactly what the Bills need. A long, competitive player at the catch point who offers more athletic upside than anyone on the back end of Buffalo’s defense. He had some pretty pass breakups and interceptions as a rookie, playing his best football in the team’s two postseason games. His highest level of play was as good (if not better) than any corner on the team this year. You may be in denial, but cornerback Tre’Davious White coming off of his ACL injury looked rusty and never caught his footing in 2022. Elam taking a half step up should solidify himself as a starting cornerback before training camp breaks in 2023.

RB James Cook

2022 Stats: 18 GP; 106 carries, 559 yards, 3 TDs; 21 receptions, 180 yards, TD

Cook was a player whose touches fluctuated a ton throughout the 2022 season. His role did increase throughout the year, especially the last quarter of the schedule. Even still, Cook had as few as four touches in Week 11 and as many as 20 in Week 12. No consistency. That’s to be expected when Josh Allen is your quarterback.

Cook averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a rookie playing behind a mediocre offensive line. It felt like he continued to see the hole and cutback lane at a high level all season. Cook also showed more ability to run through contact than you’d expect from a player labeled as a pass-catching back coming out of the draft.

Going into year two, Cook could use a faster start to get him going. Playing with confidence early on looked like a struggle for the second-round pick. Devin Singletary is a pending unrestricted free agent so this very well could be Cook’s backfield in 2023.

LB Terrel Bernard

2022 Stats: 17 GP; 23 total tackles

I think we can keep this recap short. Bernard was a disappointment. At the time of his selection, it felt like a head scratcher and that only persisted throughout the 2022 season. He was picked early for his projection and linebacker didn’t feel like a position of need for the moment.

It’s possible that Bernard is being groomed for 2023, but his being inactive during the late stages of the season doesn’t set up well for the future of a third-round pick. I think it’s possible Bernard is cut in 2023 if a jump isn’t made. The Bills can’t afford to miss this badly on players on day two if they want to remain Super Bowl contenders moving forward.

WR Khalil Shakir

2022 Stats: 16 GP; 15 receptions, 252 yards, TD

The cards were very much stacked against Shakir going into the season — a fifth-round pick who lost his starting punt returner spot early in the season after the team traded for running back Nyheim Hines. But Shakir got better and he continued to force the issue for offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Josh Allen and Dorsey made it a point to work him into the offense late in the season.

Shakir burst onto the scene in Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he accumulated three receptions, 75 yards, and a score. It was clear there was something to Shakir after many draft folks thought the Bills stole him in the fifth round of the 2022 Draft.

Then, he disappeared — for a long period of time. The next nine competitions registered Shakir 35 total yards receiving. It was a confusing time for the offense, which continued to field struggles at receiver from veterans Gabe Davis and Isaiah McKenzie. Those two particularly struggled with drops at points throughout the year.

Then, something with the offense changed at the twilight. For Shakir, the last three games of the season resulted in six receptions for 109 yards. The Bills got him involved and he rewarded the team for their decision. Shakir made impressive plays showing off body control that we saw so much of from his college days at Boise State.

Shakir is set to be a contributor in year two. I believe he makes wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie expendable this offseason — if the Bills choose to prioritize receiver early in the 2023 NFL Draft. For now, Shakir looks like a very solid number-four option in an offense with potential for more as an insurance option — he’s a true ball winner for Josh Allen.

CB Christian Benford

2022 Stats: 9 GP; 24 tackles, INT, 5 passes defended

As mentioned previously, Benford was firmly in the mix with first-round corner Kaiir Elam as a rotational starter to begin the season even though the sixth-rounder was forced to acclimate from FCS football. He turned heads in training camp, where he punched above his weight in the preseason.

Unfortunately, injuries derailed much of his rookie season. That started with a fractured hand in the Week 3 game against the Miami Dolphins that forced him out of two contests. Then, he suffered an oblique injury Week 12 against the Chicago Bears that landed him on short-term Injured Reserve. He missed six games in total due to injury. Benford didn’t play the rest of the season after his IR stint despite seemingly returning to good health.

Head coach Sean McDermott mentioned the rookie in his postseason press conference as a potential position change to safety. We’ll see if that transpires with a possible need formulating on the back end should the team lose Jordan Poyer to free agency — and Damar Hamlin’s situation. All told and despite those injuries, Benford’s rookie season was a big success for the sixth-round pick.

LB Baylon Spector

2022 Stats: 6 GP: 6 tackles

Spector provided depth this season and was inactive more often than not — especially when starting linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano were healthy. Spector will have to fight to stay on the roster in 2023 with the low investment the Bills put into him. It’s worth noting Buffalo cut veteran linebacker Andre Smith coming off his suspension to keep Spector on the roster in 2022.