Dynasty Dilemma: James Cook
It’s that season. My favorite season. The time of mock drafts, best-ball drafts, and Reddit threads.
In my search for league winners, buy low dynasty targets and 2nd-year breakouts, I find myself returning over and over to James Cook. This 2nd year running back has the dynasty community split, and drafters not knowing whether he’s capable of finishing this year as an RB2.
At 5’11, 190lbs, James Cook lacks the ideal size for a starting running back in the NFL. However, he makes up for what he lacks in size with his game.
After a lackluster rookie campaign, can James Cook have a 2nd-year breakout? Will Cook boom or bust? Is he a buy or sell-in dynasty?
Let’s dive in and break down the enigma that is James Cook.
REASON TO BUY
The running back position is changing. You must be able to catch the ball to demand a three-down snap share in a modern NFL offense. Coming out of Georgia, Cook was considered a natural pass catcher and advanced route runner for the running back position. Although we didn’t see this shine as much in his rookie season, the tools are there. Take Kenneth Walker III, for example. Walker put up an impressive rookie season, and Seattle still drafted Zach Charbonnet in the 2nd round in 2023 for his pass-catching abilities. Like many other teams, Seattle recognized that having an elite pass-catching option out of the backfield adds extra dimensions to your offense and makes your attack less predictable to opposing defenses. In briefly looking back at the Bills’ selection of Cook in 2022, the Bills drafted Cook as ‘that guy.’ The multifaceted weapon, the motion man, the safety blanket, the “turn nothing into something” option at the running back position. He was best at that in college, where he will excel in the NFL.
In the limited sample size from his rookie season, Cook averaged 2.3 YBC (Yards Before Catch/Per Reception), 6.3 (Yards After Catch/ Per Reception), and an ADOT (Average Depth of Target) of 2.4. To compare that against his former running mate, Devin Singletary put up: (0.6 YBC/ 6.8 YAC / 0.2 ADOT). Among qualified running backs, Cook finished between Antonio Gibson (6.5) and Rashaad White (6.2) in YAC last season. Both Gibson and White are “plus” receiving talents at running back. Cook’s ADOT was ahead of Najee Harris and Tony Pollard.
Cook isn’t your traditional workhorse back, and the Bills know that. They would not have selected Cook in the 2nd round while in “Superbowl or Bust” mode unless they were planning on using him as a playmaker within this offense. Look for Cook to impact the Bills’ receiving game this upcoming season significantly.
It isn’t a secret that the Bills sparingly used Cook during his rookie season. Between weeks 1-12, Cook averaged a snap count of only 16.9%. That could be better. Now, they’re a few things we can look at:
Departure of Devin Singletary
Devin Singletary has been an established presence in this Bills offense over the last few seasons, accounting for 52 targets in the passing game, along with 177 rushing attempts. With his departure, James Cook will get opportunities to work with Josh Allen and the first-team offense this summer. After an entire off-season program, I have a hard time believing that Damien Harris presents a real challenge to Cook for the starting RB spot within this offense.
Another would-be contender for targets, Nyheim Hines, just suffered a season ending knee injury. This both simultaneously opens up opportunities for Cook, yet could also opens the door for a veteran running back signing. This will be something to watch as the offseason progresses.
Fantasy has shown us recently that youth wins, especially at running back. Targets are up for grabs, and if I’m Sean McDermott, I want my most explosive players on the field. Cook averaged 3.7 yards before contact on his carries last year, putting him ahead of guys like Travis Etienne, Aaron Jones, and Christian McCaffrey. With limited touches from the Bills, Cook was still effective and efficient on those touches.
After starting the season at a 16.9% snap count (weeks 1-12), Cook averaged 40.1% of offensive snaps for the remainder of the season (including the playoffs). The Bills more than doubled his snap count when it counted the most. As with most rookies, they find their groove within an offense as the season goes on. With the draft capital spent on Cook and how the snap shares trended late in the season, it is easy to see a path where Cook demands a 60% snap share or higher within this offense heading into the 2023 season.
Right now, Dynasty Pros has Cook as RB30 in Dynasty rankings. That’s behind David Montgomery, Isaiah Pacheco, and Devon Achane. With all things considered, it is well within Cook’s range of outcomes to smash that ADP and outproduce others in front of him. I was looking at Rachaad White, who is ranked RB20 on Dynasty Pros. I don’t feel this is too high, and I’m not anti-Rachaad White, but when I project him next to Cook, I cannot justify taking White 10 positional spots higher. White will have the opportunity, but the Bucs could be a bottom-five offense this year. The Bills will be competitive in every game and put up points. I’m taking shots on guys in that offense, and I’ll fade whoever has Baker Mayfield starting under center.
REASON TO SELL
My biggest concern with Cook is his size. At only 190 lbs, few with his size are starting at RB in the NFL. The average NFL running back weighs 214 lbs, and Cook isn’t even close to that. How much does his size limit his ceiling? Can he add weight this offseason to support an increased workload? These are the questions that most dynasty managers are looking at. Not a single running back over the last 15 years has had a fantasy finish inside the top 10 at running back while weighing in under 200 lbs. That is alarming.
It is worth noting that Austin Ekeler is listed at exactly 200 pounds. The 200-pound mark seems to be a distinct cut off for weight at the position, with those falling short of it, having fantasy production that finishes outside the Top-10. We know size matters at running back, but it was surprising that not a single Top-10 fantasy finish was from a player under 200 pounds. History is not on Cook’s side based on his size to finish as a top fantasy producer at the position.
Utilization within Offense
One of the biggest reasons to buy Cook is also one of the biggest reasons to sell him. As much as he’s likely to receive a majority of pass-catching work out of the backfield, he is unlikely to take away from Josh Allen at the goal line. Accounting for that, how valuable is a running back that isn’t getting goal-line touches? It would be naive to ignore the rushing ability of Allen and the Bills’ propensity to use this within the red zone. Allen accounted for 124 rushing attempts and seven rushing touchdowns in 2022. Twenty-six rushing attempts came within the red zone, only trailing Hurts and Fields in this category. Is this the year we see these numbers start to drop for Allen? The best ability is availability, and the Bills have a 0% chance of reaching the Superbowl if something happens to Allen. With Allen another year older, I don’t see these rushing attempts trending up, but rather, they should start to come down. Even so, rushing attempts for Allen will remain, severely limiting Cooks’ ceiling. The last time I checked, it’s still 6 points per rushing touchdown for RBs.
Cook is a buy for me in Redraft and Dynasty at his current price. Considering what I’d be giving up for Cook in Dynasty, it will likely be a 2024 2nd-round pick. I’m not overpaying for a guy in an explosive offense who can contribute in the receiving game. The Bills will need to make it a priority to get Cook the ball in space. Outside of Diggs, the Bills need another explosive playmaker in the offense. You can say Gabe Davis, but most agree he’s just an average player. Even if you do not feel Cook is a long-term solution for you at RB (given size concerns), I feel like he can contribute to your Dynasty team as a flex option this year, and when he outperforms his ADP, look to flip him heading into 2024.
In Redraft, he’s a guy I’m taking shots on in and around the 9th round. For 2023, I’m projecting Cook to have 145 carries / 660 rushing yards, 6 Rush TDs / 55 receptions / 350 receiving yards, 4 Rec TDs. This stat line would have made him RB15 in PPR formats last year. If I can buy at RB30, and he finishes as RB20 or lower, that’s a win.
Now we know this is highly speculative, and I’m likely more bullish than others on James Cook, but given the cost, I’m willing to pay the price. Whether you’re going a Zero-RB build or just looking to “shoot for the moon” on guys that can smash their ADP, you need to be looking at James Cook in Dynasty and Redraft.
Nick Goodwin (@ngoodwin_TV)
Sources – Sleeper, Dynasty Pros, Pro Football Focus, ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference
Nick Godwin has been playing fantasy football since 2010. He grew up right outside of Philadelphia. GO BIRDS!! You may have seen him in Underdog bestball drafts (ALWYSSTDY), or in other draft rooms under Always Steady. He plays fantasy to win and hopes to share his hot takes, talk strategies, and most importantly, help everyone win their championships. He’s always ready to talk all things dynasty, devy, redraft and IDP. As an avid fantasy fan, he spends most of his days mock drafting, getting in to best ball drafts, and preparing to dominate his home leagues.