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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Running Backs

This is another group that should look a bit different next year...but how much?

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are not what anyone would consider to be a run-first team. More often than not, pundits find Buffalo’s run game, or lack thereof, as a point of complaint about the team’s offense. Establishing more of a rhythm in the running game would take pressure off of quarterback Josh Allen, they say, which could lead to an even better offense than what Buffalo already has installed.

But what if I told you that the Bills actually have one of the most efficient rushing attacks in the league — even when you remove Allen and his crazy mobility from the picture? Buffalo was tied for second in the NFL in rushing yards per carry, averaging 5.2 yards per rush this year. If you remove Allen’s carries, it’s true the numbers drop — but they only drop into a tie for third overall, as the team’s running backs combined to average 4.9 yards per rush.

Does this mean that the team should run the ball more often? Should they revamp the running back room? They’ve already committed plenty of resources into the players they have on the current roster. But now, thanks to expiring contracts and ballooning salary cap hits, there’s a good chance that the team will look a whole lot different in the running game come 2023.

In our latest look at the state of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, we discuss the running backs.

Reggie Gilliam

Contract status for 2023: Signed; first year of two-year contract extension ($2,028,333 cap hit; $666,667 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 25 (26 on 8/20/23)

Playing time: 15 games (4 starts), 296 special teams snaps (72.2% of team total), 176 offensive snaps (16.22% of team total)

Key statistics: 10 targets, 8 receptions, 69 receiving yards, 1 touchdown, 3 special teams tackles

Sledge goes here, as he is a fullback-slash-special teams guy who sometimes lines up at tight end. Gilliam wasn’t used often on offense, and when he was, he mostly did the dirty work of blocking for others, but there’s part of me that wishes we saw more of Gilliam on offense.

He’s an effective safety valve in the passing game and a strong lead blocker with surprising athleticism. Gilliam’s 2023 cap hit is the sixth-highest among NFL fullbacks, and he is one of just six players at the position to count for $1 million, let alone $2 million, against the cap. That’s not to say he will be or should be released, but it does show how little the position is valued in the modern game.

James Cook

Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($1,325,468 cap hit; $2,036,216 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 23 (24 on 9/25/23)

Playing time: 16 games, 268 offensive snaps (24.79% of team total), 1 special teams snap (.24% of team total)

Key statistics: 89 carries, 507 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 32 targets, 21 receptions, 180 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown, 1 fumble

Cook’s usage throughout the year was especially frustrating because it was clear he gave Buffalo a speed element that nobody else at running back had. His versatility as a receiver, highly touted out of college, wasn’t put to use much, and given that he appeared on just one of every four snaps the team took on offense, it felt like he wasn’t given much of a chance to thrive in his first professional season. As the season progressed, though, the team used him more often.

Cook appears poised to take over the top spot in the backfield next year. Now, if offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey can just figure out how to ensure that Cook catches the ball in space with room to create YAC opportunities, they might be able to use the speedy back to his full potential.

Nyheim Hines

Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of three-year contract signed with Indianapolis Colts ($4.79 million cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut or traded)

Age: 26 (27 on 11/12/23)

Playing time (with Bills): 9 games (1 start), 93 special teams snaps (22.68% of team total), 66 offensive snaps (6/08% of team total)

Key statistics (with Bills): 6 carries, -3 rushing yards, 9 targets, 5 receptions, 53 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown, 16 punt returns, 153 punt return yards, 19 kickoff returns, 554 kickoff return yards, 2 kickoff return touchdowns

Color me confused about Hines and his usage this past year, as well. When Buffalo gave up a draft choice to acquire him at the trade deadline, it felt like general manager Brandon Beane acquired the proven receiving back he coveted all offseason (and thought he had signed in J.D. McKissic last March). However, it turned out that Beane had actually acquired a primary return man, and Hines did well in that role. His two kickoff return touchdowns in the regular season finale against the New England Patriots won the Bills the game and provided a fairytale storyline after what Buffalo endured with safety Damar Hamlin’s sudden cardiac arrest just the week prior.

The issue is that Hines carries the 16th-highest cap hit in the entire NFL at running back, and unless the Bills can figure out how better to utilize him in the offense next season, it isn’t going to be worth that to keep him. I’d love for the team to sign him to an extension that lowers his 2023 cap hit while keeping him on the team, and I’d also like it if they could integrate him into the offense in a meaningful way.

Taiwan Jones

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 34 (35 on 7/26/23)

Playing time: 16 games, 305 special teams snaps (74.39% of team total)

Key statistics: 5 special teams tackles

Jones is a longtime special teams stalwart with the Bills, but his time on the roster is probably up this season. Given the amount of money Buffalo has tied up in other places and the needs they have, it feels unlikely that they’ll re-sign the soon-to-be 35-year old veteran; however, if a non-guaranteed deal for the veteran’s minimum is amenable to Jones and the team, it wouldn’t surprise me to see another reunion between the two parties.

Devin Singletary

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 25 (26 on 9/3/23)

Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 709 offensive snaps (65.35% of team total)

Key statistics: 177 carries, 819 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns, 52 targets, 38 receptions, 280 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown, 3 fumbles

The clear RB1 on the squad this past season was Singletary, who always felt like he was on the cusp of breaking out before the offensive scheme relegated him to an afterthought. It’s true, too, that Buffalo was so dynamic in the passing game for much of the last three seasons that teams almost welcomed a five-yard carry from Singletary, as it at least meant that Josh Allen wasn’t picking up tremendous chunks of yardage through the air or with runs of his own.

Singletary is a strong runner, a good blocker in pass protection, and a solid enough receiver as a safety valve. Depending on the type of contract he seeks, he’s someone Buffalo could look into retaining, but I’m not sure the team will retain him. Spotrac has his annual value at $5.5 million, and if that turns out to be accurate, he’ll be elsewhere next season.

Duke Johnson

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 29 (30 on 9/23/23)

Playing time: One game, five offensive snaps (.46% of team total), seven special teams snaps (1.71% of team total)

Key statistics: Two carries, four yards, seven kickoff returns, 157 return yards (22.4 yards per return)

Johnson appeared in just one game with the Bills, serving as the kickoff return man for the thrilling — and disappointing — loss against the Minnesota Vikings. He was not offered a contract after the season, so he is now a free agent after spending the year on Buffalo’s practice squad. I don’t expect a reunion, but if Johnson is looking to play and he remains unsigned after the NFL Draft, it’s possible that he could come back on a non-guaranteed deal for the veteran’s minimum.

I think it’s clear that Buffalo intends to move on from Singletary this offseason, as every move they’ve made at running back in terms of who they’ve added over the last calendar year points to them changing at the position. Where that clarity muddies a bit is in the way the coaching staff used the running backs this year, which seems to be a common theme at multiple positions on this roster (with cornerback the foremost one among them).

That means that we’re looking at an offensive backfield headed by Cook, with Hines potentially remaining to play the role of change-of-pace back. I can’t see the Bills keeping Hines at his current cap number, however, so it’s probable that he’s either extended or released. That would leave Buffalo looking for at least two running backs to fit the needs of the offense, not to mention finding someone who can play special teams, as well.

I’ve seen some speculation that the Vikings could be moving on from Dalvin Cook, and some Bills fans have hoped that the team might look to unite the Cook brothers in Orchard Park, NY. I don’t know how realistic that is, though, given Buffalo’s aversion to spending big money at the position. A more realistic candidate is another Vikings RB — Alexander Mattison, Cook’s primary backup. There are other free-agent running backs available should Buffalo look to go that route who will probably fit the team’s budget and needs as part-time players — guys like Jeff Wilson, Raheem Mostert, D’Onta Foreman, Kenyon Drake, and Boston Scott. If none of those names really move the needle for you, it doesn’t surprise me much, but it does illustrate the abundance of role-players at the running back position right now.

Buffalo’s tendencies under general manager Brandon Beane tend towards signing an aging running back and adding one through the NFL Draft. They’re definitely going to need at least one this offseason. I don’t expect a big-ticket signing like Saquon Barkley, the aforementioned elder Cook, or Kareem Hunt, but the team is definitely going to add someone here in March and/or April.