Which second-year Bills will step up?


The dog days of the NFL summer are coming to a close with training camp just around the corner. Buffalo Bills fans hope they get more out of their 2022 draft class in 2023 than they did as rookies. Which second-year Bill will step up?

Kaiir Elam 

The case for:

The Bills showed they had a specific interest in Kaiir Elam by trading up, even by only a few spots. It is hard to imagine that belief would evaporate in one single season. Even in a largely platoon role, Elam showed flashes of why he grabbed the Bills’ attention in college. The rookie grabbed interceptions off the league’s best quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, in Week 6 and in Buffalo’s playoff game against Miami. Elam’s numbers aren’t kind to him, but the Bills didn’t keep him on the field. Elam only played over 90% of snaps three times in his rookie year. At only 22 years old, Elam is still young. He’s now had an entire offseason with a playbook in hand, and his traits still make his ceiling exceptionally high. 

The case against: 

It isn’t a good sign when you can’t win the second cornerback job outright against a sixth-round pick. Elam split time with fellow rookie Christian Benford and was even, at one point, an apparent healthy scratch for veteran Xavier Rhodes who only remained with the Bills for a handful of weeks. Brandon Beane has even said recently that Elam needs to be “a more consistent player” in practice. Additionally, Elam ranked near the bottom of qualified cornerbacks in (PFF):

  • Receptions per snap: 98th
  • Passer rating against: 86th
  • Forced incompletion rate: 120th

Did Elam struggle because he couldn’t get on the field? Or could he not get on the field because he struggled? The numbers point toward the latter. 

James Cook

The case for:

James Cook finished the 2022 season strong. From Week 9 through Week 18, Cook ranked 11th among running backs in EPA per attempt and fourth in yards per attempt among running backs with at least 20 carries over that period. If you want to read the tea leaves of the Bills’ offseason additions, Buffalo spent minimal resources on the position. The newest backs, Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, are making less than $3 million combined. Harris ranked 38th in EPA per attempt among running backs with at least 50 carries and has struggled to stay healthy. Murray is in the twilight of his (albeit) impressive career. The Bills have provided Cook the opportunity to grab the undisputed RB1 spot, signaling their belief in him. 

The case against:

Going back to college, Cook has never been the workhorse running back. In his final season at Georgia, Cook notched more than 10 carries in a game on just three occasions, never besting more than 12 carries in a single contest. We do not have evidence Cook’s efficiency can hold up over a more significant workload. Despite their minimal contracts, Murray and Harris could work their way into taking snaps from Cook, especially in short-yardage situations.

Terrel Benard 

The case for:

This is where this activity starts to get more challenging. Baylor linebacker Terrel Benard was a controversial pick when it happened and did little to shake that doubt in his rookie year. If you are looking for something to hang on to, Benard finished the 2022 preseason with a 59 passer rating against on nine targets. In his one start, where he played 98% of snaps, he only missed one tackle and contributed to eight, logging to run 2 stops. Diving back into the tea leaves, the Bills’ comfort in allowing Tremaine Edmunds to walk in free agency means they were comfortable with at least one person in the room. Could that be Benard? 

The case against:

Nothing was more damning to Bernard’s stock than AJ Klein being claimed off waivers and starting over him on Thanksgiving in Detriot. Then in this year’s draft, Buffalo picked another linebacker, Dorian Williams in the third round. Benard put little on tape to prove he could win the job vacated by Edmunds despite his only competition being seventh-round pick Baylon Spector, veteran AJ Klein, and the aforementioned Williams.  

Basic Defensive Coverages Series: Cover 4

Khalil Shakir 

The case for:

Shakir was lauded as a steal when the Bills grabbed him in the fifth round last year. He quickly became a camp darling but yielded little immediate return come the regular season. Shakir had momentary flashes in 2022, racking up 75 yards and a touchdown in his start against Pittsburgh in Week 5 and 51 yards on three catches in the Wild Card Round. In all, Shakir only dropped two of his 23 targets last season. Shakir averaged over two yards per route run in three different games as a rookie. For reference, only 17 receivers in the NFL averaged over two yards per route run for the entire season. In 2023, Shakir will compete with the recently signed Deonte Harty for the starting slot job, a role that will be, at least, partially split with rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid.

The case against :

Despite the high ceiling we hope for in Shakir, Harty has already demonstrated ability in his career. Kincaid’s potential slot usage could also box Shakir out for snaps. Despite his flashes as a rookie, the Bills’ staff saw something to justify keeping him off the field for most of the season. Whatever it is, Shakir needs to work out in order to earn a contributing role on the offense. 

Christian Benford

The case for:

Despite rumblings that Christian Benford was a future safety, he pushed Elam for starting reps from the start of the 2022 training camp. Of the nine games Benford appeared in, he played over 50% of the snaps in five, playing over 90% twice. Benford outperformed Elam in snaps per reception and forced incompletion rate. 

The case against: 

This a zero-sum game, and the battle for CB2 is tight. We know Sean McDermott trusts Dane Jackson, and the Bills not only drafted Elam in the first but used an extra fourth to ensure they could secure him. Whether earned or not, Jackson and Elam will likely get the first chance to win the job. Benford must go above and beyond to win the job over the players in front of him. 

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