The Buffalo Bills’ rushing attack was often under fire in 2022, but it was sneakily better than most understand or want to admit. The Bills finished seventh in rushing yards per game at 139.5 and second in yards per attempt at 5.2. Those stats get rebuffed by some who say, “Josh Allen did most of that,” the QB was once again phenomenal, but the Buffalo rushing attack was still top 10 if you remove the quarterback’s rushing stats. Furthermore, they scored the second most points per game in 2022 at 28.4. Looking at some advanced numbers, Football Outsider’s DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ranked Buffalo’s offense second overall and eleventh in rushing. The Bills were seventh in PFF (Pro Football Focus) overall grade at 86.6, and the 91.8 grade in rushing was good enough for first. However, I believe, we can all agree Buffalo can use a little boost in the running game.
The running back carousel behind Allen often lacked the explosive plays we hoped could come this season. James Cook started to come on late, but it didn’t seem to matter if the rookie was in the backfield or veterans Devin Singletary or Zack Moss (traded to Colts midseason). I mentioned the solid stats as a team above, but as individuals, Singletary’s team-leading 816 rushing yards finished 26th in the NFL, and his five rushing touchdowns were 25th in the league.
Buffalo can move on from Singletary this year as he’s a free agent, but that leaves them with just Cook and Nyheim Hines as the expected backfield for 2023. For today’s exercise, we’re going to explore the numbers behind PROMOTING Cook and Hines as the go-to guys or PAYING some less expensive veteran options in Latavius Murray and Damien Harris, or bringing back Singletary.
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Let’s start with the name you know most, Devin “Motor” Singletary. Motor played 794 snaps for Buffalo in 2022, with 690 of them coming in the backfield, and the rest were either in the slot or out wide. He played 65.35% of the regular season snaps for the Bills. As for his backfield mates, rookie James Cook saw the field 316 snaps, but the most telling part is that three of his top six snap counts game in Week 18 and the playoffs. During the regular season, Cook took part in 24.75% of the snaps. To the frustration of many fans, Hines was mostly a special teams player after being acquired, showing his value in that area with his performance versus New England in the season finale. The speedy vet only saw seven backfield snaps during the Bills’ final six games of the year.
How about the names from outside of the organization? Latavius Murray played 447 snaps last season with 422 coming from the backfield. Unlike Cook and Hines, Murray rarely lined up elsewhere, only going to the slot 13 times and wide ten times, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Harris was dinged up for parts of last season, only lining up for New England 238 times, 224 of those were from the backfield. As you can see, the Bills appear to have their passing back in-house already. It comes down to how they approach that third guy in the stable.
Motor led the Bills running backs in most boxscore stats with his 819 yards and five touchdowns. His 38 receptions and 280 receiving yards were also the most of the squad’s running backs. Cook was next in most categories with 507 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, 21 receptions, and 180 receiving yards. Hines was basically not utilized. He had six carries for a total of -3 yards and added five receptions for 53 yards. All three had one receiving touchdown in the regular season. Murray spent last year with Denver and New Orleans, he combined for 760 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The Central Florida product added 27 catches for 132 more yards. Harris only appeared in 11 games for the Patriots but still managed 462 yards and three rushing TDs. The Bama product added 17 receptions for 97 yards.
Let’s peel back the layers of advanced stats for these five starting with Pro Football Reference’s system they call “AV” which stands for “approximate value” (“this is our attempt to put a single number on each player season since 1960 so that we can (very approximately) compare across years and positions”). Here they grade Singletary a 9, Cook a 5, Hines a 4 (a lot for his ST), Harris a 3, and Murray a 4.
Football Outsiders use DYAR or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the performance on plays where this RBs carried/caught the ball, compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent, and then translated into yardage. Here they score Singletary a 79, Cook a 116, Harris a 94, and Murray an 86, Hines didn’t qualify. As for PFF’s grades, it gave Singletary an 85.1 rushing grade, Murray an 86.0, Cook a 76.9, Hines a 43.2, and Harris a 77.9.
Motor is a UFA this offseason after playing out his four-year rookie contract with the Bills. According to Spotrac, he has a “market value” of a $5,500,000 average annual value (AAV) on a projected three-year deal. They add that this contract would rank him at 17th among RBs. Damien Harris is expected to get an even larger contract, one with an AAV of $7.1M. He is also coming off of a four-year rookie deal that he finished up with New England. Latavius Murray doesn’t have a market value on Spotrac’s website, but Over The Cap says his valuation was north of three million dollars from last season. Cook is entering year two of his rookie contract. He has a base salary of just under a million dollars and a cap hit of around $1,300,000. Hines has a base salary of $4,500,000 and interestingly doesn’t have a dead cap for this year, meaning if the Bills wanted to, they could get out of his deal before 2023 starts.
I’m going to start my verdict with this qualifier each and every time… We all know the Bills aren’t flush with cash entering 2023. Even if they pull out most of their “cap coupons” (as our cap guru, Greg Tompsett, calls contract restructures), they are still looking at $40M to $50M to work with before signing or drafting anyone. That said, I believe it would be a great move for the Bills to try and add Murray on a short-term deal worth a couple of million if he’d take that sort of a deal for a shot at a ring at the age of 33. Also, he and Alex Tuch (Sabres’ forward) can talk about being from central New York. Adding Murray to Cook, and keeping Hines as a special team piece and an explosive weapon, is a nice start to a backfield. It would also be prudent to use a late draft pick or go UDFA on another piece of the puzzle.