Running backs are becoming expendable in the NFL, but the Buffalo Bills have found a way to revamp their backfield to keep the running game going in 2023.
The Bills followed suit with the rest of the league this offseason and parted ways with their starting running back, Devin Singletary, meaning that James Cook will have a bigger role this season. In addition to this change, they also acquired veteran Damien Harris from the New England Patriots. Cook and Harris will have to take on the load and provide a one-two punch in the backfield. Harris will be the backup, but really, the brawler of the two.
The two Bills running backs complement each other well with their style of running. Cook is a pass-catching, explosive back who can make defenders miss in small spaces. Harris is a back who can create his own lanes with his power, breaking tackles and will always finish his runs. Thanks to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we have their run directions showing how they complement each other, with Cook listed first and Harris second.
In 2021, when Harris was the primary back for the Patriots, he was 71 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards. In 2022, he sustained a hamstring injury which kept him out weeks 13-16. According to Football Outsiders when Harris was healthy, the Patriots offense was 19th in rush DVOA with -7.5%. Without him, the Patriots were 22nd with a DVOA of-15.8%.
Over the last two years, Harris has 1,391 yards on 308 attempts and 18 touchdowns. The Patriots relied heavily on Harris in 2021, as they were eighth in the league in total rushing attempts (489), which could be a main factor as to why the veteran running back dealt with injuries. On the Bills, Harris will be a complimentary back in a pass-heavy offense, which should keep him healthy, giving his team better results.
The Bills' Rushing Game Will Look Different in 2023
When pulling the numbers for 2022, the Bills had the least amount of rushing attempts in the entire league with 291, second closest being the Bengals, with 311 attempts. The Bills were 28th in touchdowns with seven, 24th in yards with 1418, 21st in yards per game with 88.6 but 4th in yards per attempt with 4.9. So, that tells us that they don't run it much, but when they do, they are effective.
What makes Cook the starter by default is his familiarity with the offense, and the 23-year-old produced when asked. He averaged 5.7 per carry and had 180 yards on 21 receptions. Among secondary backs (min 20-99 max touches), Cook was second in DYAR according to Football Outsiders, behind only JK Dobbins.
DYAR is described as "Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement". This gives the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.
Cook is a top pass catching back and since the Bills love to move the ball through the air, Cook will be their guy. Here he is making two Miami Dolphins defenders miss in open space.
According to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required), Cook was 11th in yards per route run with 1.7 and was 11th in yards per reception 8.6, and 4th in average depth of target (RB min 30 targets).
Cook understands spacing and gets north-south quickly when catching passes out of the backfield. When lined up out wide, he caught eight of nine targets for 75 yards and one touchdown. When taking handoffs, according to Cover 1, 20% of Cook's snaps were mid zone run plays, and 17% were crack tosses to the outside. He's able to stretch the field when needed and also run off the tackles.
Rookie RB James Cook?
Perimeter run schemes. Zone, stretch, toss. Will see targets in the pass game, too. pic.twitter.com/U4VTwE08Hu
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) August 23, 2022
In comparison, Harris does a better job running off the center and his guards and can also be effective in a gap run scheme (from when he was with the Patriots). Over his last two seasons, Harris had 91 zone run plays and 206 gap style plays.
Harris' style falls in line with the change that the Bills made last season after Josh Allen sustained his UCL elbow injury. In 2021, the Bills had Singletary run 105 zone run plays and 101 gap scheme run plays. In 2022, he ran 69 zone run plays and 117 gap scheme plays. So, if the Bills decide to move more toward a gap-style scheme, Harris will fit like a glove in the offense. If the Bills choose to have a "running back by committee" and go with their 2020-2021 zone style running scheme, giving it to the running back with the hotter hand, expect Cook to be the main guy. Cook should have 170-plus carries this season and 60-plus targets through the air. Harris should see about 100 carries this season.
This week, the Bills suffered a blow to the backfield when they found out that their third back/returner Nyheim Hines will be out for the 2023 season. They immediately signed Darrynton Evans who played for the Chicago Bears in 2022 and the Tennessee Titans in 2021. While with the Titans, he returned nine kickoffs totaling 206 yards, averaging 22.9 yards per return. At Appalachian State from 2016-2019, Evans returned three kickoffs for touchdowns:
— Bret Strelow (@bretstrelow) December 19, 2016
With a revamped and reloaded backfield, the Bills might have the offensive firepower and balance that they need to compete with the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals as legitimate AFC contenders.
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