Training camp is a time of hope around the NFL. Optimism is at an all-time high among most fanbases as teams field rosters with new players, exciting young draft picks and under-the-radar veterans that find a way to shine. On Tuesday, the Buffalo Bills’ rookies reported to camp in Orchard Park and the rest of the team will join them on July 27. The Bills are hungry and training camp will be intense as they look to avenge their AFC Championship loss and build upon their 13-3 record from last season.
But unlike many of the teams that Buffalo has fielded in recent years, this roster is both talented and deep, meaning that most of the starters are locked into their current spots. However, there will be serious competition for some pretty meaningful jobs on the team and there are a handful of lesser-known players that have an opportunity to elevate themselves into playing significant snaps during the 2021 NFL season.
Here’s a look at the five biggest sleepers for fans to follow at Buffalo Bills training camp.
(NOTE: For the sake of keeping things in-depth, I decided against adding cornerback Dane Jackson and wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins to this list, as both are widely hyped at this point, and far from being true sleepers in the eyes of Bills fans.)
S Damar Hamlin
Buffalo boasts one of the NFL’s best safety tandems in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, but the team’s sixth-round draft pick, Damar Hamlin has a pretty clear path to some significant playing time if he can prove himself in training camp.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder was named second-team All-ACC after leading the Pitt Panthers’ defense in tackles (67) and pass breakups (7) in 2020. According to Pro Football Focus, Hamlin was solid in pass coverage, surrendering just 28 receptions on 54 targets (51.9-percent completion rate) for 402 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. Hamlin played through injuries for most of his five collegiate seasons but still managed to finish his career with 275 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six interceptions and 21 pass breakups.
While Hamlin doesn’t have a chance at cracking the starting lineup, the box/subpackage safety role vacated by Dean Marlowe – who played 232 defensive snaps in 2020 – is up for grabs. This role is great for the sixth-rounder, as Hamlin is an aggressive and sound tackler that can fill against the run. He doesn’t quite have the range to cover a deep third as a free safety, but he’s got enough speed to carry tight ends in man coverage and play shallow zones from the slot. At Pitt, he was often used near the line of scrimmage, as 129 of his defensive snaps in 2020 came in the box, while he was lined up in the slot for 424 defensive snaps.
Jaquan Johnson and undrafted free agent Tariq Thompson are Hamlin’s only real source of competition to get on the field in 2020, making the rookie a likely candidate to crack the lineup and make some splash plays early on.
DL Efe Obada
Efe Obada is one of the most intriguing players on the Bills’ roster entering training camp, as the 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive lineman brings size, power, athleticism and versatility to the defensive line.
Unlike Christian Wade, who also is part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, Obada has a real shot to be a contributor for the team in the regular season. Last year with the Carolina Panthers, Obada tallied 18 tackles, four tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 16 games, with one start. According to Pro Football Focus, he generated 29 total quarterback pressures in 281 pass-rushing snaps.
Obada’s size and length allow him to play all along the defensive line in a wide array of technique alignments. He lined up as a defensive tackle on 166 of his defensive snaps and 236 snaps as an edge player. Obada was signed before the team drafted Greg Rousseau, a player with similar measurables to his, which certainly puts a damper on the role many fans envisioned for the 29-year old. However, Obada’s NFL experience, athleticism and versatility should allow him to quickly prove that he’s capable of handling a decently-sized workload while the team grooms Rousseau into his own role.
Buffalo’s defensive line is deep and the coaching staff will have some extremely difficult decisions to make when finalizing the 53-man roster. But Obada’s talent, versatility and length are valuable assets, especially for a team that wants to throw as many different looks as possible at opposing quarterbacks. Obada should shine in the preseason and if he does, he’ll not only make the team, but he’ll likely also play a meaningful amount of snaps for the Bills’ 2021 defense.
G Ike Boettger
One of the more seemingly overlooked position battles in Orchard Park this summer will be for the starting left guard position. Former second-round draft pick Cody Ford is the front runner for the job, and his return to the lineup has been the source of a lot of articles regarding the continuity along the offensive line. However, Ford’s play through his first two seasons has been underwhelming at best. After transitioning from right tackle to guard, Ford suffered a season-ending torn meniscus five games into the 2020 season and Ike Bottger stepped in and provided some consistency and reliability that the position lacked, putting Ford firmly on the hot seat.
Boettger, an undrafted free agent in 2018, probably doesn’t have the skills to ever be a Pro Bowl talent at guard, but he’s technically sound and smart enough to consistently execute his assignments on a play-to-play basis. Seemingly a favorite of offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, Boettger was highlighted at length in the C.O.O.L. coaching clinic breaking down the Bills’ offensive line techniques, a sign that he provides the team with exactly what they ask for on a given play – something that’s incredibly valuable to a coaching staff.
While Ford has the measurables desired at the position, his technique has been inconsistent and has resulted in some downright awful play at times. On the other hand, Boettger, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 21 overall guard in 2020, is reliable enough to be effective for long stretches.
DT Justin Zimmer
The return of Star Lotulelei is drawing the majority of headlines when it comes to the Bills’ defensive tackle position. However, Justin Zimmer is a player that’s probably not getting the recognition that he deserves. Zimmer was on the field for 338 defensive snaps last season, including 63 in the playoffs. He registered 21 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble in the regular season. His 23 total pressures were fifth-most on the team and he led the defense in quarterback hits (seven).
The 6-foot-3, 292-pounder is a freaky athlete that’s powerful and has the ability to anchor down against double teams at the one-technique while being explosive enough to rip into the backfield from the three-technique. Zimmer was stout against the run in his limited action last year, too.
While Lotulelei is almost certain to step right in as the starting one-technique alongside Ed Oliver, Justin Zimmer, Vernon Butler and Harrison Phillips will be fighting for the reserve role behind him. Phillips is a fan favorite and looks to be in incredible shape heading into training camp but Zimmer is a name to watch as his large snap count during the postseason indicates that the coaching staff trusts him in key moments.
LB Tyrell Adams
General manager Brandon Beane claimed linebacker Tyrell Adams off waivers in 2017 but ultimately released the former undrafted free agent due to a shoulder injury. After bouncing around the league for a few seasons, Adams finally got a chance to shine in 2020 with the Houston Texans. When middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney went down early in the season with an injury, Adams stepped in and immediately shined. Adams had a big year, finishing the season with 125 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
The 29-year old signed a one-year deal with Buffalo during free agency and quickly caught the eye of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier during OTAs, who liked what he’s seen from Adams.
“He did a good job in Houston – he was a tackling machine,” Frazier said during OTAs. “He’s going to be fighting for a roster spot. I know Heath Farwell our special teams coach is excited about him as well. We’ll see how it goes once we get to camp and start putting the pads on. He should help us whether it be a backup linebacker or on special teams.”
The Bills know just how valuable linebacker depth is, as both of their starters in Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds dealt with injuries throughout the 2020 NFL season. A.J. Klein – who’s best suited to play middle linebacker – played 652 defensive snaps last season, most of which came at weakside linebacker in place of Milano, who missed six games.
Adams, despite manning the middle linebacker position last year in Houston, is best-suited for the weakside, where his 4.68 speed is maximized in pass coverage.
Buffalo has some decent depth at linebacker behind Edmunds and Milano, as both Klein and Tyrel Dodson – who played well in his limited action last year – figure to fight for significant reps in camp. But Adams has good athleticism and nearly a full season of starting experience that could allow him to catch the eye of the Bills’ coaching staff and ultimately secure a role on the 53-man roster.