The Bills drafted James Cook with the 63rd overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, and he has already impressed at training camp, according to Bleacher Report. Cook is an explosive back with speed to burn out of Georgia and is also the younger brother of Vikings’ star RB Dalvin Cook. This is what NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein had to say on Cook’s game prior to the draft:
“James has his brother’s one-cut talent and ability to stack cuts seamlessly through the second level,” Zierlein said. “He can also be used as a mismatch option as a pass-catcher.”
The 5’11” 195-lb back was the shiftiest in this year’s draft class, offering elite change of direction and game-breaking speed.
With Josh Allen under center, Buffalo has steered away from using a feature back. No Bills player has gone over 170 carries since 2018, while at least two have eclipsed 100 carries each season. Meaning, Cook will get at least 100 carries this season along with a large target share. There are multiple indications that Cook could take over the Bills’ backfield, the most significant being his specialty as a pass-catcher.
Buffalo has had trouble catching out of the backfield
No Buffalo running back has caught more than 40 balls or gone for 300 receiving yards despite being a pass-first offense the last two seasons. Bills GM Brandon Beane brought in James Cook specifically to change that.
Cook has been working with the receivers a lot during camp, and head coach Sean McDermott said that the rookie has “opened some eyes here in the run and pass game.”
Here’s a video that most football fans are familiar with, from the 2021 National Championship game against Alabama. Cook motions out of the backfield, which helps the QB recognize man coverage as a linebacker motions outside with Cook. Then, he runs a fantastic double move to beat a leaping linebacker down the sideline before strolling into the end zone for an 82-yard score.
This is a wide receiver-caliber route that gets significant separation. His ability to change direction is on-par with his brother’s, which Buffalo plans to put toward developing his route running. Cook will be the primary receiver on third downs and RB screens, while taking around 6-8 carries each game. With that volume out of the gate, he has a chance to take over a Bills backfield rotation that is looking for a true No. 1.
Buffalo’s rushing attack is very similar to Minnesota’s in the sense that they feature outside zone runs. That means that backs are likely going through the B or C gap rather than the A, which is beside the center. That plays to James’ strengths, as Zierlein pointed out in his pre-draft analysis.
“His slashing style fits with outside zone and toss plays,” Zierlein said.
The Bills love getting their backs in space, and that’s where both of the Cooks like to work. The creativity and intimidation of the Bills’ passing game should give James plenty of breakaway opportunities.
Cook averaged over 6 yards per carry in all four years at Georgia before capping his Bulldog tenure with career-highs in every rushing and receiving category. The senior scored 11 touchdowns while gaining 1,012 yards from scrimmage in their undefeated 2021 season. He improved in every category, every year.
Meanwhile, Zack Moss has floated into the second/third team conversation in Buffalo. Why? Because Moss ranked close to the bottom of the league in rushing efficiency last season, according to Next Gen Stats. He also totaled -61 yards over expected, meaning that he had trouble creating his own space. Buffalo is looking for a more explosive player who can make people miss consistently, and that’s exactly what they are getting in James Cook.
That elusiveness will create more yards in the open field than any back Allen has played with. Every screen pass, slant and flat in the hands of James Cook could go the distance. That’s just the kind of player he is. Let’s not forget that his brother Dalvin was also a second-round pick, and he’s now on his third straight 1,000-yard season. It’s only a matter of time before there are two Cooks at the top of the league’s running back hierarchy.
James Cook Fantasy Value
Pro Football Focus ranked Cook as a fantasy football sleeper this season, precisely because his pass-catching ability fills a big need in a high-scoring offense. The Bills have not had a running back with at least a 65 PFF passing grade since Lesean McCoy in 2019, according to Bills Wire. 65 isn’t very good, even for a running back.
Cook is currency being taken in the 10th+ round of fantasy drafts, despite his prominent role in possibly the best passing offense in football.
“Assuming Cook can receive 50% of the backfield targets in Buffalo, he could be a RB3,” said Ethan Masel of PFF.
I think it’s safe to assume that Cook will end the season with more than half of the team’s backfield targets. However, he is currently being drafted as RB4 or even 5 in most leagues. That’s far enough down the draft board to feel comfortable reaching on Cook. He will not have trouble sustaining fantasy relevance in PPR formats with an ADP around 130.
Cook is still behind Devin Singletary on the depth chart, who impressively hasn’t missed a game in two seasons, but Cook is a much better fit for their scheme in the long run. He has insane dynasty and keeper value, so don’t be afraid to reach on the rookie.