Aug 22, 2023

James Cook Fantasy Outlook: Is He Really the Buffalo Bills RB1?

On an elite offense without an elite RB, can James Cook be the Buffalo Bills running back to finally provide strong fantasy value?

Buffalo Bills running back James Cook looks poised to be the lead back this season. Undersized and without a lead-back profile, can Cook command enough volume to be a fantasy starter? What is his fantasy football outlook for the 2023 season?

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For the past three seasons, the Bills have mostly deployed the combination of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss as their lead running backs. The Moss pick was always curious, given how poor his prospect profile was. They tried to make him a thing, but he just lacked the talent to play in the NFL.

On the other hand, Singletary was quite solid. In 2021, he was able to post a top-24 finish with 11.6 PPR fantasy points per game. There’s definitely hope for a Bills running back to have sustainable fantasy value. The question is can Cook be that guy?

At 199 pounds, Cook does not profile as a lead back. He never saw more than 113 carries in a single college season and entered the NFL with fewer than 200 career carries. Then, as a rookie, Cook was only able to command 91 carries.

The good news is Cook was highly efficient on his limited touches. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and led the NFL in percentage of runs to go for at least 15 yards at 12.1%.

Cook was also effective as a receiver. He only saw a 6% target share, but he turned his 21 receptions into 180 yards. Cook averaged an impressive 1.65 yards per route run. Overall, his 6.3 yards per touch was third in the league.

For Cook to even return fantasy RB2 numbers (RB1 is a pipe dream and entirely unrealistic), he will need to get it done as a receiver. Well, we have more good news on that front. From Week 13 onward, including two playoff games, Cook averaged 11.8 routes run per game. Cook should easily run 20+ routes a game this season.

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Now, for some bad news. Even if Cook is more involved as a receiver, Josh Allen doesn’t really throw to running backs. Last season, the Bills targeted the running back position at a 20% rate. However, that is the outlier among the past three seasons. In 2021, Bills running backs collectively saw just a 15.4% target share, the fourth-fewest in the league. In 2020, that number was just 13.5%, also the fourth-fewest.

While it is possible Cook’s talent warrants an increased running back target share, I wouldn’t bank on it.

Without a high target count, Cook might have a difficult time producing RB2 fantasy weeks because he’s probably not scoring touchdowns. The Bills signed Damien Harris and Latavius Murray this offseason. While both are just two-down plodders, they are also much bigger and much more experienced than Cook. When Allen isn’t stealing the goal-line looks himself, it will almost certainly be one of these two.

My projections have Cook carrying the ball 136 times for 642 yards and four touchdowns, plus 36 receptions for 263 yards and three scores through the air. That comes out to 9.9 ppg and an RB36 finish.

Perhaps I am undershooting Cook’s role in the running game too much at just 8.0 carries per game. But even if we bump that up to 12, that would only add 1.9 ppg to his average. 11.8 ppg would put him in high-RB3 territory.

Cook’s ADP is a very reasonable RB31, No. 86 overall, though. While I don’t see much of a ceiling, he’s still a sophomore running back, a group that has been a very good bet historically.

I have Cook ranked as my RB32, right in line with the consensus. He’s not someone I’m particularly bullish on, but he is being drafted pretty close to his floor.

Therefore, Cook is a fine pick at cost. He’s just not someone I’d be overly excited about for fantasy football this season.

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