The Buffalo Bills have completely remade their running back group heading into the 2023 season. Part of that is necessity, but part of it is design, as well. Four-year contributor Devin Singletary has moved on, and thanks to a freak injury over the summer, only one running back who was on the Bills’ roster last season remains on the squad.
It’s that player who we discuss in today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days” — a second-year man who checks all the boxes in terms of what a team wants in a running back. With an expanded role this season, he has a chance to become a star.
Name: James Cook
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 190 pounds
Age: 23 (24 on 9/25/2023)
Experience/Draft: 2; selected by the Bills in the second round (No. 63 overall) of the 2022 NFL Draft
Acquired: Second-round draft choice
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Cook enters the second year of his four-year rookie contract. That pact is worth $5,832,057 overall. For the 2023 season, he carries a cap hit of $1,325,468. Buffalo is on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $2,036,216 if he’s released.
2022 Recap: After a strong preseason where Cook averaged 5.6 yards per rush and caught all three of his targets for 17 yards, expectations were high for the speedy rookie. However, his career began with a fumble on his first official carry, and Cook didn’t play more than 26% of the team’s offensive snaps in a game until December. Once he hit that milestone, though, Cook became a more regular participant, as he never dipped below 31% of the team’s snaps for the remainder of the regular season. There were a few chances for him to shine, like a 64-yard rushing performance against the New England Patriots in Week 13 (a game where he also added 41 receiving yards on six catches) and a 99-yard effort against the Chicago Bears in Week 16. Cook was very much entrenched at RB2 as a rookie, and he showed great explosiveness and receiving ability across his limited chances. He carried 89 times for 507 yards — a 5.7 yards-per-carry average, and two touchdowns. He added 21 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown, as well. Overall, Cook appeared on just 25% of the team’s offensive snaps while playing in all 16 games.
Positional outlook: Cook is joined by Damien Harris, Latavius Murray, Jordan Mims, and Darrynton Evans in an entirely new-look running back room. Nyheim Hines is on the NFI list, and he’ll miss the season thanks to an injury suffered while on a jet ski prior to training camp. Reggie Gilliam is the team’s lone fullback.
2023 Offseason: Cook has been strong throughout camp, showing burst and versatility throughout. He’s a big breakout candidate both in real life and in fantasy football, if that’s your thing.
2023 Season outlook: Cook might not be a 200-touch back, but he’s definitely explosive enough to gain 1,200 all-purpose yards if he sees 125 carries and 40 receptions. The Bills haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since LeSean McCoy in 2017. The team hasn’t even had a 900-yard rusher in that span, which is less an indictment on Devin Singletary and the rest of Buffalo’s running backs than it is an acknowledgment that the game has changed enough where the traditional “bell-cow back” is exceedingly rare. Damien Harris is going to see plenty of run, and now that Hines is out, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Latavius Murray not only make the team, but contribute in goal-line situations and some passing downs.
Of the three players, though, Cook is absolutely the most exciting — as his electric speed, ability to line up both in the backfield and split out as a receiver, and ball security are elite. After that first-carry fumble, Cook didn’t fumble on his remaining 126 touches. Cook’s ceiling far exceeds that of his teammates, though, and if he can take a step forward, it makes the Bills even more dangerous.