After a solid second season, what does James Cook do for an encore?


Staff member

Buffalo Bills running back James Cook took a notable jump in his second year in the league.

Head coach Sean McDermott applauded the efforts by the former second-round pick at his end-of-season news conference.

“I think he’s done a really good job. He really has,” McDermott said in January. “You talk about development of players, right – that is coaches’ responsibilities, and players’ responsibilities, as well. And I think James, where you look at where he was in Year 1, to where he was in Year 2, difference, right? And to come in and say, here’s a young man that maybe wasn’t the primary back at Georgia, but became the primary back this season in his second year in the NFL, for the Buffalo Bills, I thought that was very impressive.”

McDermott continued to note that, of course, Cook hasn’t hit his ceiling yet.

“Are there still more hurdles to jump over? Yes,” McDermott said. “And still more growth? Yes. And I think he is primed and prepared to do that this offseason.”
So what does Cook do for an encore?

The top area of growth is straightforward. Cook simply must hold onto the ball just a bit better. He had four fumbles (including a game-opening fumble in the loss to the Denver Broncos) and a number of significant drops last season (a would-be touchdown in the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was, perhaps, the most significant). Cook knows he has to clean it up.

“It’s the league, so (lows) are going to happen. So, you just try to stay positive and take everything they give you,” Cook told The Buffalo News in December. “Just had to learn from it.”

Cook more than doubled his numbers from his rookie campaign, going from 507 yards on 89 carries as a rookie to 1,122 yards on 237 attempts this past season.

His receiving numbers jumped significantly, as well. Cook had 21 catches for 180 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. He had 44 receptions for 445 and four touchdowns this past season.

The one thing that stayed the same was his rushing touchdowns – two apiece in each season. Perhaps there is an argument that what Cook needs to do next season is find himself running into the end zone more. The counterpoint is that the Bills were scoring 26.5 points per game, good for sixth-most in the NFL. The Bills have a number of playmakers, so while Cook would probably love to score more on the ground, that is easier said than done in a loaded offense.

The way Cook is used isn’t up to him, but the Bills and offensive coordinator Joe Brady could get more creative with him. Of his 237 carries, 154, or 65%, came on first down. The Bills rarely used him on third down – he had four carries (good for two first downs) and six targets (good for three catches and two first downs) across the season. Cook was never used on fourth down.

Those decisions also come down to other options on the field, and those players will change. Of the Bills’ running backs, only Cook and Nyheim Hines – who missed last season with a knee injury – are set to be on the roster next year. Latavius Murray, Damien Harris and Ty Johnson are unrestricted free agents. Whether some of those players return or the Bills bring in new faces will impact Cook.

The Bills used Murray, for example, as their power running back on third down, and always have quarterback Josh Allen as an option. For Murray, 20 of his 79 total carries came on third down, and 19 of those came when the Bills had three yards or fewer to gain on third down.

Now, the Bills should not go against players’ own strengths, just for the sake of giving Cook the ball on third down more often – that would be unwise. But to keep opposing defenses on their toes, Brady should continue to find creative looks for Cook, whether that’s in the run game or the pass game.