BUFFALO, NY — Under general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott, the Buffalo Bills have leaned on a draft, develop and re-sign approach. At the end of last season, 26 of the Bills’ 53 players had been drafted by the team (49.1%, ranked ninth in the league).
But the Bills have also eased their rookies onto the field. Since the start of 2018 — following Beane’s first draft — the Bills have the sixth-fewest snaps played by rookies (14,439).
In 2022, the Bills had the second-fewest total snaps played by rookies (1,998). Only the Miami Dolphins had fewer (1,684).
By contrast, as the Kansas City Chiefs went on their run to a Super Bowl championship, they leaned heavily on their rookie class. In the regular season, the Chiefs were fourth in snaps played by rookies (5,066). The Chiefs’ rookies also combined to play in 154 games in the regular season (second) and 10 rookies played in each of their three playoff games.
The Bills have considerable work to do this offseason to keep pace with the AFC’s elite — particularly at wide receiver and offensive line. But they aren’t expected, according to Beane, to make a splashy move like last year when they signed pass-rusher Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million deal. So getting larger contributions from younger players and rookies sooner rather than later will be that much more important in achieving that.
Let’s take a look at how the Bills’ 2022 rookie class performed. Two of the Bills’ sixth-round draft picks — punter Matt Araiza and offensive lineman Luke Tenuta — were cut before the regular season began.
CB Kaiir Elam: Round 1, 23rd overall
Snaps: 476 | Games played: 13 | Starting: 6
The Bills moved up two picks to draft Elam, who had an up-and-down rookie season. Day 3 cornerback Christian Benford had the upper hand over Elam coming out of training camp, and the Bills rotated Benford and Elam opposite cornerback Dane Jackson to start the season. All three, however, dealt with injuries. Elam injured his ankle in Week 5, and then re-injured it in Week 9 and missed some time. After returning for one game, he was a healthy scratch in Week 13.
Elam spoke about some of the mental hurdles he faced.
“I was just tired of being down on myself, tired of trying to be perfect,” Elam said in Week 16. “I was just like, I’ll give my all and like let the work take over itself, you know what I mean? Not trying to strive to be perfect anymore, just nothing’s gonna be perfect. Just try to just give it my all, make sure I’m locked in on what I need to get done.”
The Bills’ cornerback rotation changed throughout the season with veteran Tre’Davious White returning on Thanksgiving. While McDermott said “ideally” the Bills would have one player at the No. 2 corner spot opposite White, no one player took the position over.
“You’re not just handed a job rookie year. You’ve got to earn it,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “And that’s an every week thing. And that’s just how we do things here. And I think [Elam’s] embraced that.”
Elam made some key plays in the playoff win over the Dolphins, including an interception and a play on the ball to help end the game. McDermott referred to the game as a “launching point” for Elam, who started the playoff game against the Bengals.
RB James Cook: Round 2, 63rd overall
Snaps: 258 | Games played: 16 | Starting: 0
Beane noted how Cook became more comfortable as the season went on, and that was reflected in his increased playing time. After not once playing 30% of the offensive snaps before Week 13, Cook played at least that in every game that followed and saw his touches increase from an average of 5.0 per game through Week 12 to 10.3 through the end of the playoffs.
He finished the regular season with 89 carries for 507 yards, 21 receptions for 180 yards, and a total of three touchdowns.
“He’s just gotten more and more comfortable as the season’s gone [on]. He’s gotten that experience and those reps,” offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said. “It’s a combination of him working hard and putting himself in position to be out there more because we trust him.”
With uncertain depth at the position — Devin Singletary is set to be a free agent — Cook could have an increased role next season.
Snaps: 362 | Games played: 16 | Starting: 1
Bernard served mostly as a special teams player but was also a backup linebacker. He fell behind AJ Klein and Tyrel Dodson on the linebacker depth chart, however, and will need to continue to develop heading into 2023.
WR Khalil Shakir: Round 5, 148th overall
Snaps: 281 | Games played: 14 | Starting: 2
Shakir had plenty thrown at him in his rookie season, learning the outside and slot receiver positions as well as serving as a backup returner. The Bills clearly felt he was not ready to fill in at the slot receiver role and that extra depth at wide receiver was needed, signing Cole Beasley and John Brown late in the season.
Part of a wide receiver group that needs additions this offseason, Shakir will be another player the Bills hope can take a step forward. The glimpses he showed throughout the 2022 season showed what he could do for this offense. He finished with 10 receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s gonna be a big jump first to second year — just kind of make sure that I focus in on a lot of those deep key details as well as the small details as far as within my route running and cleaning things up with that,” Shakir said on his offseason plans.
CB Christian Benford: Round 6, 185th overall
Snaps: 387 | Games played: 9 | Starting: 5
While Benford missed the last seven games of the regular season and postseason for various reasons, he was easily the steal of the draft for the Bills in the competition and talent he added at cornerback.
With potential gaps to fill at safety — Jordan Poyer is scheduled to hit free agency — the Bills have not ruled out transitioning Benford there. He came into the league with experience playing corner, safety and nickel, which is part of what appealed to the Bills. Trying the 6-foot-1, 205-pound defensive back at safety could be best for both the player and the team.
“That’ll be one of the things we talk about in the evaluation,” McDermott said in January. “You know, that’s been talked about way back when we first picked up Christian and we’ll just see where it goes.”
Snaps: 98 | Games played: 6 | Starting: 0
A healthy scratch for most of the season, Spector contributed on special teams and will fight for a roster spot going into the season.