Can A Run-Heavy Approach Lead to a Higher Fantasy Ceiling for James Cook?

Jul 01, 2024
Can A Run-Heavy Approach Lead to a Higher Fantasy Ceiling for James Cook?

Coming out of a far more productive sophomore season than he experienced as a rookie, James Cook racked up over 1,500 scrimmage yards while handily becoming the Buffalo Bills No. 1 back. As he was coming off of Underdog draft boards as the RB30 this time last year, his RB19 in half-PPR points per game finish (12.4 points) was a fantastic result for fantasy managers, though he would wind up putting up a combined 9.9 points in Weeks 16 and 17 combined.

Let’s examine the former Georgia Bulldog’s fantasy landscape in the new-look Bills offense.

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James Cook’s 2022 and 2023 Seasons

Cook came off the board in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and for fantasy purposes, it was mostly a lost season. After fumbling the ball on the third snap (and first carry) of his professional career, he took a seat on the bench and didn’t eclipse 10.0 half-PPR points until Week 13, when he caught a career-high six passes. On the bright side, he wouldn’t lose another fumble that year and ingratiated himself with a coaching staff that stuck him squarely in the lead-back role heading into ‘23.

In the first month of the season, he accounted for 60 opportunities (targets + carries) and solidified himself as the king of a backfield rotation that included Latavius Murray, Ty Johnson, Damien Harris, and a sprinkle of Leonard Fournette.

James Cook's NFL Career Stats
Year Carries Yards YPA % of Backfield Rushes (Rank) Yards After Contact (Rank) YPRR* (Rank)
2022 89 508 5.7 20.7% (55th/60) 3.18 (16th/60) 1.43 (15th/50)
2023 237 1,122 4.7 46.3% (28th/63) 2.76 (41st/63) 1.45 (8th/60)

*Yards per route run

Even with a much better sophomore season, Cook wasn’t particularly what we would consider a “bell cow.” Though his 53 targets more than made up for it, he handled less than 50% of the running back carries (46.3%) and was one of the least utilized “RB1s” in the league on the ground. Further capping his fantasy ceiling has been his lack of usage around the goal line. After accounting for zero attempts from inside the opponent’s five-yard line as a rookie, Cook earned one touchdown in five attempts in that area of the field in ‘23, tying for 40th among RBs in goal-line carries.

Josh Allen’s presence will always impact backs in that area of the field, but it’s worth pointing out that Murray/Harris/Fournette combined for 16 carries within the five, converting them into five touchdowns.

One aspect of the Bills' offense that boosted Cook’s fantasy scoring was the switch to Joe Brady as the offensive coordinator, which resulted in a more run-heavy scheme. Through the first 10 weeks of the season—with Ken Dorsey as OC—the Bills ranked 22nd in neutral-score rushing rate (40.4%) but jumped up to sixth (48%) after Brady took over. With the moves the team made over the offseason, there’s a good chance that increase in rushing continues.

The Bills Offense in 2024

The official switch to Joe Brady as the full-time offensive coordinator isn’t the most significant offseason storyline for the Buffalo Bills. That belongs to the wide receiver exodus of both Gabe Davis and Stefon Diggs, with rookie Keon Coleman and veteran Curtis Samuel being the only true “bring back” in the roster culling. Coleman has a chance of leading the wide receiver room in targets right off the bat, but to say that he offers less of an offensive boost than Diggs would be an understatement.

The second-round rookie looks to be a solid long-term investment for the team —and Dynasty rosters— but he profiles as a circus-catch, 50/50 ball winner in the immediate future. Coleman’s route-running ability would be a massive downgrade from Diggs if he truly were slated to take anywhere near a target share we’ve grown accustomed to out of the veteran. Instead, we’re looking at a somewhat flat target share for Coleman/Samuel/Khalil Shakir and the three guys fighting for playing time behind them, which could inevitably mean more work for the running backs.

Samuel could also be included in that category, as the veteran has some experience handling work out of the backfield with Joe Brady at the helm. The hybrid player set a career-high with 70 backfield snaps as a Carolina Panther in 2020, with Brady as the OC and teammate Christian McCaffrey only suiting up for three games. Samuel finished that season with highs in carries (41), rushing yards (200), and receptions (77).

This was, of course, four whole seasons ago, but it’s worth wondering if the team messes around with a two-and-a-half-headed monster in the backfield in ‘24.

Projecting the Bills Backfield in Fantasy

I am an unapologetic fan of Ray Davis, even with his fourth-round NFL Draft capital. The rookie exhibits an all-around profile and excels with power in short-yardage situations, an area of Cook’s game that has been lacking in his first two years in the league. The aforementioned combination of veterans Harris/Fournette/Murray has essentially been replaced by one body, and Davis could vulture goal-line work as early as Week 1.

The prevailing thought is that Davis —or Ty Johnson— won’t be eating into Cook’s usage in the passing game, but it should be noted that the explosive running back finished 54th out of 57 qualifying running backs in PFF’s pass protection grade last year. I’m of the belief that Davis will leapfrog Johnson on the depth chart in training camp, keeping the latter in a special teams role, which probably ends up keeping Cook in line for his heightened role in the passing game, regardless of moderate pass-pro issues.

As much as I like Davis, Cook’s 46.3% of the team’s backfield carries last season feels like the lowest we’ll see it go without an unforeseen injury. A few handful of carries to Curtis Samuel shouldn’t knock it down any further than it was. That should keep the incumbent’s floor as a fantasy RB2 cemented. The ceiling is what I’m worried about. It’s certainly possible that his goal-line work increases, but there’s not much of a reason to believe so after he went 11 straight weeks without a carry inside the five last year.

Cook seems locked into a top-15 finish in 2024 on an offense that will have to switch things up after losing one of the best route-runners in the league. At the same time, I have no issues with taking a stab at Davis late in drafts for a player who could surprise in the touchdown department.

Bottom Line

  • It’s fair to question the current offensive environment with the recent turnover in pass-catchers, but the Bills have ranked no lower than No. 6 in scoring offense over the last four years.
  • An entire year of a more run-heavy approach under OC Joe Brady could create a higher-floor opportunity for more than one back in the offense.
  • According to current Underdog best ball drafts, Cook is coming off the board as the RB13 (58.6). The addition of Davis seems to be scaring some drafters off, as he has dropped nearly an entire round since the beginning of May and can sometimes be had in the fifth round. That is a more than reasonable price, though the early fourth is a more probable spot in typical 1QB leagues. The rookie is coming off boards as the RB51 deep in the double-digit rounds and is a great target at his draft capital as well.
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