Bills camp observations: James Cook opening eyes, don’t count out Zack Moss

PITTSFORD, NY — After nearly two weeks of work, the Bills have entered the final stages of training camp at St. John Fisher University. Thursday morning’s session was the setup for the Bills heading to Buffalo for a Friday night practice at Highmark Stadium. Then with an off day on Saturday, the Bills have only four practices remaining in Pittsford.

Thursday’s padded practice was a bit more subdued than the rest. There was another skirmish, this time between wide receiver Stefon Diggs and defensive end Greg Rousseau, but that was one of only a few big moments.

With the Bills likely to have a jolt of extra energy in front of a big crowd in Orchard Park for their next practice, Thursday’s session was likely just the calm before Friday’s storm. Despite that, there were still plenty of things to learn.

Here are seven observations from Day 9 of Bills training camp.

Cook the pass catcher

After nearly two weeks of practice, the Bills switched things up a bit on Thursday. For positional drills early in the session, they cut the running backs room in half. Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Taiwan Jones remained with running backs coach Kelly Skipper, while rookie James Cook, Duke Johnson and undrafted rookie Raheem Blackshear went over to work with the wide receivers.

Johnson and Blackshear appear to be long shots to make the roster, so Cook’s inclusion in that group was the most interesting. Cook is considered a better pass-catcher back to this point. Cook getting to run some routes with receivers coach Chad Hall closely watching pairs nicely with what coach Sean McDermott said about the running back before practice.

“A young player that’s opened some eyes here a little bit in the run and pass game,” McDermott said.

That is not to say that Cook will exclusively work with the receivers from this point forward. It may just have been a chance to have their best pass-catching backs hone their footwork with the receivers coach. Cook continued to get carries out of the backfield in team drills. He also worked on some of the running back blocking drills McDermott alluded to Thursday. But the Bills don’t have anyone else quite like Cook running routes out of the backfield. He looks smooth and gives them far more potential for yards after the catch than Singletary or Moss. It’s notable that McDermott said Cook had “opened some eyes.”

It remains to be seen if Cook’s rare skill set will open the door for more time on the field, or maybe even some two-running-back formations. Cook’s pass protection remains a work in progress as the safeties and linebackers have been giving him some trouble in those one-on-one drills. As Singletary and Moss continue to challenge for time on the field, pass protection will be key for Cook and his rookie year impact. Cook will need to show he can be trusted, especially when the Bills have other explosive pass catchers available as receivers in a more standard way. McDermott said he believes Cook is up to the protection challenge. Still, much will likely depend on how Cook performs in the preseason.


Running back James Cook, left with Taiwan Jones, could be a Bills weapon out of the backfield this season. (Mark Konezny/USA Today)

Moss shows physicality in short yardage

As training camp goes on, McDermott and the Bills like to target very specific situations. On Day 9, the Bills worked a lot in short-yardage situations, which gave Moss a chance to stand out. He displayed both good vision and physicality to beat the defender to the first-down marker before the plays were whistled dead before a tackle.

It’s what the Bills likely wanted to see from Moss, who could give them the short-yardage element that neither Singletary nor Cook has the body type to consistently win. Moss also can do more than just be a short-yardage back as he showed he was the team’s most dynamic back near the end of his rookie season in 2020 before suffering an ankle injury in the playoffs. Last year, Moss was still working back from offseason surgery, which could have had a lingering impact.

To this point, the 2020 third-round pick has worked in with the Josh Allen-led offense every day, which shows he is still very much a part of the running back discussion for 2022. But it’s also difficult to gauge running back play during training camp without live tackling or having the tackle-breaking element involved. Thursday was also the first chance we got to see a bit of a live session, and Moss took his lone opportunity into the end zone for a touchdown.

As long as the Bills keep giving Moss noteworthy practice snaps, it’s not a foregone conclusion that it will be the Singletary and Cook show in 2022. Preseason performances will be significant for Moss having a game-day role this season. Still, he’s done as much as he could have through nine days.

Johnson jumps into the Poyer role

As expected, the Bills were without starting strong safety Jordan Poyer on Thursday because of an elbow injury suffered on Tuesday. McDermott said ahead of practice that Poyer would miss “some days” and “maybe a week or two.” However, he would not confidently say Poyer will be ready for the start of the season. Poyer’s absence allowed the Bills to get an even longer look at their top backup safety, Jaquan Johnson.

There was some question heading into the practice about whether Johnson was a better direct fit for free safety Micah Hyde. Reserve safety Damar Hamlin’s game more closely mirrors Poyer’s. As Hyde (hip/glute) worked sparingly in team drills for the first time since his injury, Johnson, not Hamlin, was in the lineup for Poyer. It seemed like Hamlin had been catching up to Johnson at the end of last season with the potential to pass him for the top reserve role in 2022, but Johnson has been the first reserve in when Hyde has had to miss time, and now with Poyer .

It’s a humongous year for Johnson, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. Since his rookie season, there has always been a little buzz about Johnson as a down-the-line starter because of his instincts and playmaking skills. If the Bills believe Johnson has made the strides they’ve wanted to see, it could open the door for a long-term role in Buffalo. They could potentially bring him back on a cost-effective deal either to remain the top backup or to replace Poyer in the starting lineup in 2023. Regardless, Johnson has had a strong enough camp that he has put himself in a position to be the No . 3 safeties this season.

Could Quessenberry start the season at right tackle?

We’re getting closer to the point of the summer when you wonder what the offensive line will look like this season. It has always seemed like the starting five has largely been decided, even though the Bills haven’t had everyone available in training camp. The ideal lineup would feature Dion Dawkins at left tackle, Rodger Saffold at left guard, Mitch Morse at center, Ryan Bates at right guard and Spencer Brown at right tackle. Four of those look to be safe bets, but the one that does bring up some further thought is Brown.

The second-year tackle has participated in all nine practices, but to this point, he has yet to take a single rep in 11-on-11 drills. We often hear McDermott talk about jobs being on the line and how important availability is to the team. There is no doubting Brown’s potential as a long-term starter, but if his back rehab prevents him from getting the reps he needs in the summer to get up to speed, the team may need to consider veteran reserve offensive tackle David Quessenberry.

Brown’s situation is a bit different than Saffold’s. Saffold is a longtime NFL starter and is a total plug-and-play left guard. They know what they’re getting out of him this season. That isn’t quite as true for Brown, who raced out to a great start as a rookie, but he was inconsistent as the season went along. Even at full health, Brown is still a bit of an unknown for 2022, which makes it even more complicated with his back rehab and slow ramp-up process.

Meanwhile, Quessenberry hasn’t been perfect, but he has been solid at right tackle. He has 23 starts to his name, which gives the Bills a more practiced hand than Brown. We’re still a week or two away before this really becomes a conversation the Bills need to have, but the longer Brown remains limited to individual drills, the case for Quessenberry to start the season as a starter will only get stronger.

Jackson typifies cornerback struggles

One mostly underwhelming spot for the Bills this summer has been boundary cornerback. Of course, the top cornerbacks have had to deal with dangerous receivers Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie and MVP-candidate quarterback Josh Allen throwing them the ball, but the cornerback group has had a tough time making an impact.

Third-year cornerback Dane Jackson is among those struggling. The 2020 seventh-round pick fell in coverage in a one-on-one rep against Diggs after the receiver put on a juke move. On another rep, he sensed a receiver winning the route, got grabby and was called for defensive holding. Later in the session, Davis beat him clean deep down the middle.

Jackson has made some plays sparingly, but his struggles, as well as those of first-round pick Kaiir Elam, have opened the door to others. Siran Neal worked against Diggs and Davis early in camp. More recently, it’s been sixth-round pick Christian Benford getting time against the Allen-led offense over the last three days. The Bills must hope this trend is a product of going against an elite passing offense or that star cornerback Tre’Davious White will be ready to play relatively soon. Either way, the Bills need more from their top available boundary cornerbacks.

Morris stands out as a blocker

The Bills’ top two tight ends are set with Dawson Knox and OJ Howard, but there might be room for a third on the 53-man roster. One player putting his best foot forward is former undrafted player Quintin Morris. After spending a full season on the practice squad in 2021, Morris has come back and has shown very well both as a blocker and as a pass catcher for quarterbacks Case Keenum and Matt Barkley. The blocking aspect really stood out Thursday, with Morris pancaking an incoming linebacker in a one-on-one drill.

The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Morris may not be the most physically imposing blocker, but he has shown a willingness and the improvement you hope to see from a second-year player. There may not be a spot available for Morris on an extremely talented roster, but in normal years, he would be squarely in the bubble conversation to win a spot. At the very least, he is playing well enough to be a key piece on the practice squad once again.

Starting to get healthy

Early in camp, the Bills had many players suffering from muscle soreness, which knocked them out of practice for a handful of days. But they took a big step forward Thursday. Day 9 marked the return of guard Ryan Bates, defensive tackle Tim Settle and defensive tackle Brandin Bryant. Bates did not participate in team drills but went through positional work. The Bills also recently welcomed back receivers Jamison Crowder and Jake Kumerow, in addition to defensive tackle DaQuan Jones.

The only player missing now due to general muscle soreness is reserve interior offensive lineman Greg Mancz. According to the team, even Saffold (non-football injury list, ribs) is making good progress and getting closer to a return. These minor injuries have been a notable piece to camp so far, but it appears the Bills are beginning to get healthy just in time for their preseason starting on August 13.

(Top photo of James Cook: Mark Konezny / USA Today)

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