ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The Bills 2022 draft class underwhelmed in year one. Not one player achieved better than rotational starter status. The good news is most (but not all) rookies improve as they get more comfortable with the league and what their team wants them to be.

Here’s a review of what was learned about the Buffalo rooks in their first season and how likely they could grow into bigger roles for 2023 and beyond. (Stats are courtesy of Pro Football Reference and include the two playoff games)

Kaiir Elam

  • 570 snaps (50%), 7 starts, 46 tackles, 6 pass break ups, 3 interceptions

Elam’s physical, press man style in college did not seem a fit for the Bills defense. It was probably a mistake expecting Elam to be a competent starter year one. There were plenty of moments where it appeared Elam was out of or unsure of his position in coverage, including during the regular season finale against New England.

There were great moments as well. The interception in the playoff win over Miami was not only excellent physically, but also smart within the defensive scheme. It was everything the Bills were likely hoping to get out of their top pick last spring.

Considering Buffalo’s cap situation and the first round investment already made in Elam, it’s unlikely further high-level competition will be brought in at cornerback. Elam should go into next season in a similar spot as this year–needing to beat out Dane Jackson and maybe Christian Benford (more on that later) to be the number two corner. This time, Elam will be armed with a year’s worth of familiarity in the Bills defense.

Everything is on the table for Elam to take over as a regular starter next season. The size/speed profile that made him a first round pick is still there. I also don’t think Sean McDermott wants to spend another season playing merry-go-round with one of his starting corner spots. However, there is a sizable amount of development and consistency needed before Elam can become a dependable starter for a Super Bowl contender.

James Cook

  • 313 snaps (27%) RUSH: 106-559 yds (5.3 per rush) 3 TD REC: 21-180 yds (8.6 per catch) 1 TD

Second round pick James Cook notably improved his vision as the season continued. He became very comfortable locating holes in zone scheme runs and Ken Dorsey was willing to showcase the rookie in those calls. Cook’s best attribute is an ability to make moves, once at top speed, without slowing down.

While Cook is great when he gets going vertically, he easily gets in trouble when he has to make plays horizontally. He showed very little elusiveness. If a run is not blocked up for him, it’s not happening. It’s a big reason why Devin Singletary got just about all of the 3rd/4th and short runs plus every non-Josh Allen carry inside the five.

That lack of side-to-side quicks I think also hurt Cook in the passing game. He was a dangerous receiver in college, but he could not escape NFL linebackers or safeties often enough during his first season. The Bills offense did leave much to be desired when it comes to giving the running backs opportunities in the passing game. If an accomplished receiving back like Nyheim Hines became an afterthought in Buffalo, a rookie was not going to have much of a chance no matter how talented.

To be fair on the scheme point, Brian Daboll’s offense NEVER featured running backs as anything more than a checkdown option. I began to wonder if teams would even bother covering backs split out in five-wide sets. Daboll also never had backs with the receiving chops of a Hines or a Cook. Dorsey was hired with continuity on offense in mind, but too much “continuity” may have wasted Cook out of the backfield somewhat.

I’d like to see Cook try and add some size next year. Very few every down running backs go lighter than 200 pounds. Cook played his rookie year at 190. He may not be able to develop the type of wiggle to avoid tacklers at the point of attack, but extra muscle could allow Cook to run through more arm tackles.

While more/better opportunities in the passing game should be a benefit, 2022 showed Cook may not be quite the weapon his college resume suggests. At the very least, Cook should have a productive future as one half of a committee. That’s Sean McDermott’s preferred setup at running back anyway. It may also be Cook’s ceiling.

Terrel Bernard

  • 110 snaps (10%), 1 start, 16 tackles, SPECIAL TEAMS: 297 snaps (63%), 7 tackles

Bernard was a core member on one of the NFL’s top special teams units. He didn’t get much opportunity at linebacker. His one start in the road loss against the Jets was fairly typical for a first year starter. He made some plays against the run, but struggled in coverage.

The frustration for Bernard is that his college film made him appear a Matt Milano clone. In fact, Bernard’s one start was in place of Milano. Tyrel Dodson started all three games that Tremaine Edmunds was out.

Before last season, it wasn’t a crazy thought to project the Bills moving on from Milano and his 13 million dollar linebacker cap hit for 2023. Bernard could slide into to that spot with a very similar profile and the defense might not miss a beat.

Unfortunately, Milano went and had his first All-Pro season, making him indispensable. A Bernard-Milano tandem at linebacker would be disturbingly small and light. It’s probable Bernard’s role as a backup at linebacker and a relied upon member of the coverage teams continues. It’s not a bad return for a late third round pick, but it’s also not what any team hopes for in that spot.

Khalil Shakir

  • 323 snaps (28%), 2 starts, 15 catches, 252 yards (16.8 yds/catch), 1 TD

Fifth rounder Khalil Shakir had the third most snaps among rookies. He showed a knack to get open against zone defenses. He’s very comfortable operating in space and made some flash catches.

He also struggled to win against man coverage. The NFL draft tends to be a bit of a meat market. Size and speed will often trump other attributes. Shakir went in the fifth round for a reason. The physical tools to consistently beat NFL defenders may just not be there.

Bills fans have often used Gabe Davis and Isaiah McKenzie as a dart board for their issues with drops in 2022. However, the receiver with the worst drop rate last season was… Khalil Shakir (2 drops on 25 targets per Pro Football Reference). It’s a small sample size, so it’s not fair to say Shakir has an issue with his hands. It’s also not fair (yet) to say Shakir does not have a problem with hands.

Shakir was a liability as a blocker during his first season and that’s putting it generously. It’s not a make-or-break characteristic for a receiver, but opponents will have no problem going small when Shakir is on the field. They’ll be able to assume their defensive back can easily be involved in any run stop.

More chances are certain to come next season, especially considering the uncertainty at slot receiver. Isaiah McKenzie is a prime candidate to be a cap casualty. Jamison Crowder and Cole Beasley are free agents who will be both be 30+ years old by the fall.

Shakir is incredibly smart and thoughtful. He could easily develop into a more productive player. However, that’s not something the Bills should count on happening.

Christian Benford

  • 363 snaps (62%), 5 starts, 24 tackles, 5 pass break ups, 1 interception

Benford was easily the surprise of the 2022 Bills draft. A strong camp wedged him into a rotation at corner with Elam while Tre White was out of the lineup. He was generally fine, but never did enough to knock Elam permanently off the field while the first rounder struggled to find his footing.

Injuries didn’t help. Benford missed two games in October due to reported broken hand. He was out five games after Thanksgiving following an oblique injury. He was inactive for the final three games after returning to the active roster in early January.

Benford’s future was muddled a bit when McDermott said after the season moving him to safety is something that “will be discussed”. Brandon Beane mentioned safety as a long-term home for Benford when he was drafted. There’s no telling how much of a need the Bills might have at the position with Jordan Poyer a free agent and Damar Hamlin’s football future still up in the air.

There’s no doubt Benford heads into 2023 as a viable option… somewhere. If he can work at safety, Benford could become a valuable piece with versatility. Right this second, he appears to be an excellent find for a sixth round pick.

Baylon Spector

  • 12 snaps (3%), 2 tackles, SPECIAL TEAMS: 86 snaps, 4 tackles

Spector was a part time player in 2022, getting into six games. His only time on defense was late in the mammoth blowout win against the Steelers. He was a healthy scratch for the last eight games of the year.

There were some flashes in preseason with quickness and good instincts. Much like most 7th round picks, Spector is more hope than projection. He was a regular special teamer in the six games he played during his first season. If he can be that guy for all 17 games next year, this pick will be a win.