Buffalo Bills draft speedy James Cook, Khalil Shakir to take pressure off Josh Allen

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Despite having one of the best rosters in the NFL, Brandon Beane was not comfortable.

There were several positions the Buffalo Bills general manager wasn't satisfied with, so he attacked them early in the 2022 NFL draft.

They took care of cornerback on Day 1, trading up to acquire Kaiir Elam from Florida at No. 23 overall. Then in the second round, the Bills added Georgia running back James Cook to help improve one of the team's less-talked-about deficiencies: yards after the catch (YAC).

“Sometimes you want that quick score or that chunk play,” Beane said. “If you're gonna pick on our offense a little bit, that's probably one of the things you could pick on is some chunk plays, get it in somebody's hand, a receiver, running back, tight end, whatever it is.”

Too much pressure and responsibility were put on quarterback Josh Allen last year to methodically guide the offense downfield.

The Bills were 32nd in yards after catch per reception last season (4.28) and in percentage of receiving yards after the catch (39.9%) while averaging the fourth-most air yards per target (8.44), putting into perspective how much the Bills were relying on Allen’s arm.

Cook, 22, adds a missing skill set to the running back room, especially with his speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds). For his career, he averaged over 10 yards after the catch per reception. His four receiving touchdowns last season were tied for the most among running backs in FBS. Now-New York Giant Matt Breida led all Bills running backs with two receiving touchdowns last year.

Cook also had 27 catches without a drop last season, the third-most catches without a drop among FBS running backs.

“He passed every test, and we thought he'd be a great fit for Josh, a guy that, you know, we talk about RAC [run after catch],” Beane said. “We talk about it a lot of times with receivers more than running backs. But this guy is a RAC player for Josh. Get the ball in his hands and make a guy miss. And then he's got the wheels to take it all the way.”

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound back is the brother of Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, which will only add to the pressure he faces in the NFL.

“[I’ve] got to go out there and perform for myself because he’s going to go out there and do it for him,” Cook said. “It's great looking up to him as an older brother, but I've got to go out there and still get the job done and play football.”

The Bills are scheduled to host the Vikings this season.

Cook will join a running back room that includes 2019- and 2020 third-round picks Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. The Bills also signed veteran Duke Johnson this offseason. Moss and Cook will be the only members of the running back room under contract for 2023.

“I can do it all,” Cook said. “I can play in the slot. I can play out wide. I can run between the tackles. ... I'm versatile.”

The Bills also drafted Boise State wide receiver Khalil Shakir in the fifth round. Beane traded up 20 spots to acquire Shakir, partly because of his ability to gain yardage downfield on his own.

“I really like that young man. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s versatile, and I think with the ball in his hands, he’s pretty good, too,” Beane said. “He was sticking out. We just felt like let’s go get him. This makes sense.”

Shakir can contribute in multiple ways, including at punt returner. The Bills see him primarily as a slot receiver, but also someone who can play outside. He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine. The 6-foot Shakir is slotted to fill the Bills’ “No. 4 role” with enough speed and size to help at multiple spots and make plays downfield.

“Whatever the team needs me to do, whether that's receiver or that's lining up in the backfield, whatever it is, I'm going to do it and they're going to get my all,” Shakir said.

Buffalo’s offense will have a new look with the additions to the running back and wide receiver rooms, along with free agent O.J. Howard joining Dawson Knox at tight end.

While impressive weapons are one crucial step, Allen has also put it on himself to help the Bills improve in yards after catch, one of the main areas he is focusing on this offseason.

“Making sure I'm on time, making the right reads and giving our guys good enough balls to get some more RAC,” Allen said on what he needs to do better. “That's one thing I think, on offense, run after catch wasn't very high last year, but again, that's me putting the ball where it needs to be and allow our guys to catch in a good position to make a run after the catch.”