A slow start for rookie RB James Cook, but he's going to be just fine

·12 min read

Compared to some of his fellow 2022 rookie draft picks, running back James Cook had a fairly quiet debut in the Bills’ 27-24 comeback victory over the Colts Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.

Cook was deep on the opening kickoff and managed a tentative 20-yard return, and then he played offense on the first several series and carried three times for five yards while catching one pass for five yards.

However, here’s the context: Indianapolis opened with most of its defensive starters on the field including stud linemen Yannick Ngakoue, DeForest Buckner, and Kwity Paye, linebackers Bobby Okereke and Zaire Franklin, and defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Kenny Moore. The Bills didn’t play a single starter in the game on either side of the ball, so it was rough going with the blocking in front of Cook.

James Cook had a quiet debut in the Bills' 27-24 preseason-opening victory over the Colts.
James Cook had a quiet debut in the Bills' 27-24 preseason-opening victory over the Colts.

Cook will be fine, and if you don’t believe me (of course, why wouldn’t you?), then perhaps you’ll believe Greg Cosell of NFL Films, one of the most astute talent evaluators in the business. When he writes or speaks, I tend to listen, and he was effusive in his praise for Cook.

A week after the draft, he was asked by the website The33rdteam.com who his top five best draft pick fits were, meaning which players would fit the best into the system of the team that selected him, and Cook made the list.

“This was one of my favorite picks in the entire draft,” Cosell said. “This to me is a perfect example of a player and team (fit) in the NFL. We know that Buffalo is a pass first team, they’re not going to change. It’s going to be a Josh Allen-based offense so they’re not looking for a volume runner; they’re not looking for their offense to start with the run.”

And that’s true, Cook is not going to become the reincarnation of O.J. Simpson carrying 300-plus times every season. What Cook projects to be is the best option as a receiver out of the backfield, a skill that neither Devin Singletary or Zack Moss has proven to be proficient at.

“I thought he was the best receiving back in this draft, not only on your basic conventional routes - angle right out of the backfield, but he split out (also),” Cosell said.

And Bills fans will love the comparison Cosell made for Cook.

“He was very much to me like Alvin Kamara was coming out of the University of Tennessee,” Cosell said of the Saints star. “In Alvin’s career I think he had one game where he carried 20 times if memory serves me correctly. And he was a split receiver a lot. We know what he’s done in the NFL. James Cook, to me, can be deployed in a similar fashion.

“You can give him the ball eight or nine times a game. He’s a really good runner, but in an offense that starts with the passing game and is diverse formationally, he can split out, he can run by safeties, he can run by linebackers. He has no problem with it at all. I thought this was a perfect pick for the team. I think he is a more explosive runner and a far better receiver (than Singletary). I think he’s a better back.”

Eight thoughts on the Colts game

Case Keenum had a tough afternoon as he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble on a sack.
Case Keenum had a tough afternoon as he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble on a sack.

1. Case Keenum struggled. True statement, but let’s hit pause for a moment. Keenum played with all fellow backups and in the first quarter he was going against the Colts’ starting defense. He made some terrible plays, three turnovers in particular, but he also had none of the players he would be on the field with in a regular season game if he has to play.

2. Matt Barkley looked very good. Also a true statement, but remember this: He was also playing with backups, but he was going against the bottom of the Colts roster in the second half and it’s fair to say Buffalo has much more depth, top to bottom, than Indy does. Barkley had better players on his side when he was putting up 17 points in the fourth quarter, but that said, he still had to make the throws and he did.

3. I loved how wideout Isaiah Hodgins played. He’s had two tough, injury-plagued years where he was either on injured reserve or buried on the practice squad because so many outstanding receivers were in front of him. He had nine catches for 77 yards, and I’m interested to see where he goes from here. The way I see it, he’s fighting Jake Kumerow and Tavon Austin for the final one or two receiving spots.

4. One receiver spot that is surely locked up belongs to rookie Khalil Shakir. I really liked him when the Bills made the pick, and I thought he was a steal in the fifth round - some draft experts rated him a fourth-round prospect. He can line up at any of the spots in the formation, and he showed the ability to get open, and then most importantly, catch the ball, skills he always displayed at Boise State.

5. Boogie Basham had a pretty blah rookie year, so it was nice to see him get the strip sack of Nick Foles that led to Terrel Bernard’s fumble return touchdown. That’s the kind of game-changing play the defensive line needs to give the Bills more of this year because it’s been lacking for several years.

6. The Bills need to move on from Matt Haack and give Matt Araiza all the remaining punt and hold reps in practice and the final two practice games. Araiza’s 82-yard punt was great and apparently broke the Internet. But what bugged me is the first punt of the game was given to Haack. It was from the 50, and Haack produced a fair catch at the 12 which, as a veteran, was expected. But those are the punts we need to see Araiza execute. We know he can bomb the ball, but it’s the finesse punts where he needs to improve, and that was a wasted opportunity.

7. Rookie linebacker Baylon Spector caught my attention. Again, it was against Colts backups, but he was all over the place as he made a game-high nine tackles, broke up a pass on a blitz, and then had a 17-yard sack on a blitz that was wiped out by a penalty. He’s probably going to be a practice squad guy, but if he keeps this up, it wouldn’t surprise me if other teams take a peak and force the Bills to either put him on the 53-man roster or lose him.

8. Four players were waived on Sunday before the Bills went through a light day-after-game practice. They were offensive linemen Derek Kerstetter and Jordan Simmons, cornerback Olajiah Griffin and tight end Jalen Wydermayer. Teams had to cut down to 85 players by Tuesday. The two offensive linemen never had a chance, Griffin was partially pushed out by the emergence of rookie sixth-round pick Christian Benford, and Wydermayer simply showed nothing in practice.

Inside the locker room

Rookie linebacker Terrel Bernard made the play of the game as he returned a fumble 69 yards for a touchdown.
Rookie linebacker Terrel Bernard made the play of the game as he returned a fumble 69 yards for a touchdown.

QB Case Keenum on being disappointed with his play even though it’s just preseason: “It counts for me, and that’s the way I roll out every day. I’m a fierce competitor at heart and anytime we don’t go score a touchdown, we have the ball in our hands, it makes me mad. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve got to get better at and get on the same page and work through a lot of good film to watch and learn.”

LB Terrel Bernard on his 69-yard fumble return touchdown: “I was looking around, seeing somebody to cover, and outta nowhere I see Boogie come and make the play and I ended up being in the right spot at the right time and we made it happen. I was super nervous to start out, but once you get out there, it’s just football.”

Coach Sean McDermott on how the rookies looked like they knew what they were doing: “That’s where our veteran leadership, the core of our team, they do such a phenomenal job of really counseling these guys, educating them when they have questions or, ‘Hey, they’re nervous before a preseason game’ or the next step of in a couple weeks, in the regular-season games. That’s where those guys will really help us.”

Getting to know … OL Ryan Bates

No matter what you call Ryan Bates, he's become a valuable member of the Bills offensive line.
No matter what you call Ryan Bates, he's become a valuable member of the Bills offensive line.

A lot was made last season about the fact that Bates’ teammates, almost from the time he arrived in Buffalo back in 2019, called him Rick instead of by his given first name, Ryan.

“I don’t even know what the reason was; I don’t even know why Rick,” Bates said, explaining that former tight end Nate Becker hung it on him. “He said it one day and it just kind of stuck like glue. It just kind of happened and I was like, ‘Rick, yeah, that’s me.’ I embrace it. I like a little nickname. I’m cool with it.”

Josh Allen chimed in on this, saying that Bates, “just looks like a Rick.”

Hey, anything is better than what Bates’ paternal grandparents named Ryan’s father: Norman. As in, Norman Bates.

Imagine what that must have been like for Mr. Bates growing up. How many times do you think the other kids might have teased him and mimicked the famous movie scene where the fictitious Norman Bates - played by actor Anthony Perkins - stabbed Janet Leigh in the shower in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Psycho?

So yeah, Rick is just fine for the offensive lineman who re-signed with the Bills in the offseason after nearly leaving for Chicago as a restricted free agent.

Another thing the Bills call Bates is versatile, and his ability to play all five of the offensive line positions is why he stuck with the team after he was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia in exchange for linebacker Eli Harold.

Having someone to plug in anywhere in case of injury was a nice luxury, but in reality, Bates’ versatility actually worked against him in terms of winning a starting job. Playing starter reps would have raised his risk of injury, and the Bills didn’t want to do that.

Their hand was forced last December, though, when Ike Boettger blew out his Achilles in Tampa Bay. Bates was thrust into the lineup for the rest of the season and his play solidified a struggling line, and now he’s the clear frontrunner to win the right guard job this season.

“It’s nice to have the ability this year, being focused on one spot and that’s right guard for me right now, and I feel comfortable, feel great,” he said.

Here are a few things to know about Bates:

  • Favorite athlete growing up: Brian Westbrook, former running back for the Eagles. Bates, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, had a Fathead poster of Westbrook in his bedroom.

  • Favorite late night snack: Honey Nut Cheerios.

  • Top bucket list item: Go to Oktoberfest in Germany.

  • First job: Camp counselor at Camp Real in Pennsylvania.

  • If he could play another sport: Power forward for the 76ers, meaning he’d be a teammate of cornerback Dane Jackson who wants to be the 76ers shooting guard.

  • Favorite movie: Step Brothers.

  • Favorite musical artist: Dierks Bentley.

Buffalo Bills birthday bio: Angelo Crowell

When his opportunity came early in the 2005 season, Crowell - who turns 41 on Tuesday - pounced on it.

Crowell, who was in his third season with the Bills but had never started on defense, was thrust into the lineup when star linebacker Takeo Spikes blew out his Achilles in Buffalo’s third game that year, ending his season.

The loss of Spikes, who had signed as a free agent with the Bills in 2002 and earned a pair of Pro Bowl invites, was thought to be a massive blow. Instead, Crowell, a third-round pick in 2003 out of North Carolina who had become a mainstay on special teams, rose to the occasion.

He was in on 120 tackles, had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and three sacks, and when Spikes returned in 2006, Crowell remained in the starting lineup, this time in place of the departed Jeff Posey.

“I knew I was playing behind some great ‘backers here and it would be hard to get on the field unless someone got hurt,” Crowell said back in 2005. “I just took the approach I had in college. Come in, learn the system, prepare for when, and if, the time comes and make sure that there would be no downfall.”

Crowell went on to be a three-year starter who totaled 346 tackles, five interceptions, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and one recovery, but he never played again after 2007. He missed all of 2008 with a knee injury, signed with Tampa Bay and missed all of 2009 with a torn biceps, and decided to retire in 2010 at the age of 29.

He had a nice but relatively short stint with the Bills, but like so many players during the drought era, Crowell is largely a forgotten name, so that’s why I wanted to remind you of his former existence.

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This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: A slow start for rookie RB James Cook, but he's going to be just fine