How James Cook can take the pressure off QB Josh Allen

Indianapolis, IN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back James Cook (4) runs the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry (1) during the third quarter of the 2022 CFP college football national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Running back James Cook said his dreams “finally came true” when he got drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft last month.

Of course, that’s because his lifelong dream of making it to the NFL came to fruition. But it could also secretly be because he gets to join a well-rounded roster that is poised to compete for a championship right now.

Either way, the 22-year-old halfback will be a welcome addition to a Bills passing attack that consists of an elite quarterback in Josh Allen and a top-five receiver in Stefon Diggs. While there are reasons for intrigue in the Bills' star-studded offense, one of the real question marks on that side of the ball is having a running back who provides some juice and energy as a receiver, which is where Cook excels.

James Cook: Receiving Stats and Rank (Among PFF's TOP 2022 NFL DRAFT RUNNING BACKS)
Stat Rank
PFF Receiving Grade 83.4 4th of 33
Yards per Route Run 1.63 4th of 33
Yards per Reception 10.2 2nd of 33
Passer Rating when Targeted 134.3 2nd of 33

Cook brings a skill set to the Bills offense that wasn't there before. His athleticism and natural instincts will give Allen a new weapon that he hasn’t yet had in his career.

He split touches last season in a crowded Georgia backfield but really established himself as a smooth, agile running back with fluid route-running ability in the Bulldogs offense. He operated as a shifty scatback who could generate bursts of speed and gain huge chunks of yards with ease.

“We feel he's kind of like a wide receiver in his own way,” general manager Brandon Beane said during the draft. “This was a guy that really stood out to us with the ball in his hands. You can split him out. He can run routes similar to a receiver.”

Getting an explosive running back in the draft was important for Buffalo, especially after the J.D. McKissic deal fell apart in free agency. McKissic agreed to a two-year deal with the Bills in March before backtracking and ultimately re-signing with the Washington Commanders.

So, the Bills drafted Cook.

“We see his best skill set as a sub back,” Beane said. “We really liked his skill set, again, similar to the one we saw with McKissic — a guy that's got really good hands, very instinctive in the pass game. You can run all sorts of guys out in routes. Some of them can’t do it, but some guys just have the feel like a slot receiver. It's the feel of what you're getting whether to sit down in a zone or run by your man.”

Beane also added that he saw Georgia play live twice last season and that you could “feel his speed with the ball in his hands.”

PFF’s Mike Renner had Cook as the fourth-best running back in the 2022 class and the 101st best player on PFF’s big board. The Georgia product ran for 1,012 scrimmage yards, 11 touchdowns and 23 explosive plays in 2021. He also proved to be an elusive ball carrier, forcing 31 broken tackles and averaging 0.22 missed tackles per rush attempt last season. And even after showcasing his electric play speed in college, the 6-foot, 204-pound Cook ran a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 1.54 second 10-yard split at the scouting combine.

On top of his speed, Cook displayed some of the most reliable hands among running backs in college football. He dropped just one of his 68 catchable targets over his career and only fumbled once on 254 total touches the past three seasons. Georgia quarterbacks posted a 144.3 passer rating when targeting him last season.

The Bills' tailbacks haven’t been a dependable option in the passing game. That became very apparent last season, as they combined to earn the third-lowest receiving grade (43.9) in the NFL. Devin Singletary, the team’s primary back, ranked last among the 50 running backs who played 125 receiving snaps last season (39.7). Cook, on the other hand, finished his senior season with a top-eight receiving grade in the FBS (83.4). Singletary and Zack Moss also combined for six drops and five fumbles this past year.

Buffalo Bills Running Backs: Receiving Stats and Rank Among 32 Teams
Stat Rank
Targets 87 T-25th of 32
Receptions 70 26th of 32
Yards 497 24th of 32
Yards Per Reception 7.1 18th of 32
Yards After the Catch Per Reception 7.3 T-20th of 32
Passer Rating When Targeted 91.4 22nd of 32
PFF Receiving Grade 43.9 30th of 32

It’s not just Cook’s hands that make him a quarterback’s safety blanket, but it’s also his downhill speed and big-play ability after the catch. He averaged over 10 yards per reception and 8.6 yards after the catch per reception last season.

Buffalo could use someone to take the pressure off Allen’s arm, as their pass-catchers combined to rank dead last in yards after the catch per reception (4.3) in 2021. The Bills' franchise quarterback recorded the sixth-highest average depth of target (9.0) this past season while also attempting the second-most passes beyond 10 yards (223). It’s almost been a hindrance at times because of his reluctance to make underneath throws.

Allen had the lowest checkdown rate during his first two seasons in the NFL, only throwing 20 on 880 total pass attempts (2.3%). Since 2020, his checkdown rate has doubled to 4.6%, but that still ranks bottom-five in the league over that span. Cook now becomes a viable, quick-pass option for Allen when the pocket breaks down or when the designed plays downfield aren’t open.

“We thought he'd be a great fit for Josh,” Beane said. “We talk about RAC [run after catch] and we talk about it a lot of times with receivers more than running backs. But this guy is a RAC player for Josh. Get the ball in his hands and make a guy miss and then he's got the wheels to take it all the way.”

There’s also plenty of room for growth for Cook in Buffalo with Singletary entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. Moss, who has two years left on his contract, had a disappointing sophomore campaign and could fall out of the backfield rotation after the addition of another tailback.

Plus, Buffalo could use some cheap but effective skill position players on the roster with Allen’s lucrative six-year, $258-million contract starting in 2023.

With the expiring contracts, the Bills have the opportunity to potentially develop Cook into a three-down back for 2023 and years to come. Regardless, they found themselves a perfect piece to their offensive scheme for next season as a legitimate threat on passing downs with the possibility of him becoming more involved in the run game down the road.

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