1. Former college wide receiver transitioning to a new position
Tight end Jason Croom spent the majority of his 2017 season on the Bills practice squad, and he has a chance at becoming a playmaker with the 2018 Bills. In college at Tennessee, Croom spent the 2013-2015 seasons as a wide receiver before converting to tight end prior to his senior season in 2016. As a former wide receiver, Croom is more athletic than most tight ends his size, but he says that he is still attempting to grow in the position.
"There are always things that you have to adjust to. I am constantly working on technique," said Croom. "You can never get enough of the fundamentals; that is one thing that we preach here. For the most part, the transition has been going well."
Although Croom acknowledges that he still has some work to do to become the type of player he expects himself to be, he noted that his teammates and coaches – in particular tight ends coach Rob Boras – in Buffalo have made the transition much easier than expected.
"He can break things down for us and introduce it to us, but at the end of the day, it is on us to understand what is going on as far as the playbook and he helps us recognize the looks," said Croom of Bills tight ends coach Rob Boras.
Croom says that he can also learn a lot from Bills tight end Charles Clay, as Clay is now entering his fourth season with the Bills, and his eighth in the NFL.
"You see him out there doing it and sometimes he puts his own flavor on it," said Croom. "When you see something like that, you try to see if you can modify it in your own way."
As Croom has embarked on his second NFL season, he says that there is a healthy mix of competition and assistance in the Bills' tight end room.
"We have talent everywhere. Everybody can add value to this team," he said. "We are all competing, but at the same time we are all helping each other."
2. Undrafted rookie bouncing back from a devasting college injury
At Iowa, Ike Boettger was blossoming into a player that was a virtual lock to be drafted by an NFL team when his biggest challenge arose. As the starting right tackle at a school known for producing talent on the offensive line, Boettger suffered an achilles injury in week two of his senior season, effectively ending his season and severely damaging his draft stock.
"I basically knew within five minutes of walking off the field that I was done for the year. It didn't really hit me for a few days, and then it hit me all at once," said the 23-year-old rookie. "The chances of me getting drafted just went out the door. All of my focus just went into getting back for my pro day."
The 2018 NFL Draft came and went, and unsurprisingly, Boettger's name was not called. However, he says that he had many teams vying for his services as an undrafted free agent, and that his injury was the main reason teams did not pull the trigger on draft day.
"Towards the seventh round, I talked to my agent and we tried to figure out where the best place for me to go was," said Boettger. "I had some options with different teams, but we thought that Buffalo was the best fit for me."
Bills offensive line coach Juan Castillo has been a crutch for Boettger as he works his way back from a major injury. Castillo's son, Greg, played cornerback at Iowa, and Boettger was glad to know that he had something in common with somebody in Buffalo.
"I have loved working with coach [Juan] Castillo," said Boettger. "He has some connections with Iowa, his son went to Iowa. We had the Iowa thing in common and everything he preaches every day is very similar to what we had at Iowa."
3. Native New Yorker aiming to find a home in Buffalo
Bills fans should have a level of familiarity with Terrence Fede, as he spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins. Primarily a rotational depth player in Miami, Fede has come to Buffalo with his mind set on impacting the team in any way possible.
"I'm not even thinking about Miami anymore. It is all about the Buffalo Bills right now," said Fede. "As a Buffalo Bill, I strive to work hard every day and bring it every day. It is blue-collar up here and we just continue to grind every single day"
Fede certainly seems to understand what is expected of him, especially in a working-class city like Buffalo, and he says that persistence and consistency have always been a part of his mentality in the NFL.
"That has always been my mentality," he said. "I grew up in the small town of Nyack, New York, went to a small school in Marist College, and I've had to grind and work for everything that I have accomplished."
As anyone from a small town will tell you, it is always nice to be close to home. After spending his first four seasons 1,301 miles away from Nyack in Miami, Fede is happy to be at least a little closer to home.
"I'm back in New York and I love it," Fede said. "I feel like I am right back at home."
Fede worked alongside some of the league's premier defensive linemen in Miami such as Cameron Wake and Ndamakong Suh, and he noted that the Bills group has impressed him in his limited time with the team.
"I love the group that I am in right now," said Fede. "We work cohesively as a team and we are trying to make each other better every day."
4. Rookie running back playing to honor his late friends
If you are looking for somebody to root for as the preseason rolls along, you can't go wrong with rookie running back Keith Ford. Ford was signed by the Bills as an undrafted free agent after this year's draft and he played his college football at Oklahoma and Texas A&M. In college, Ford averaged 4.9 yards per carry and he totaled 1,743 throughout his career; but his journey travels far deeper than stats could ever tell you.
In 2014, Ford experienced unimaginable tragedy; he lost three of his closest friends to gun violence. Jarvis Shields, DeAndre Liggins, and Devonte Hardison were all taken from this world in just a one-month span. These tragedies have shaped Ford, and he says that he carries those memories and experiences with him every day, even sporting a tattoo of three bullets on his right arm to honor his late friends.
"I'm always thinking about high school, the people that I lost, also college, and all of the ups and downs that I have gone through," said Ford. "I just wanted to be resilient and I never gave up on what I wanted to do. I think about why I am here every day and I try to have the same mentality every day."
His background has undoubtedly helped to prepare Ford for the NFL lifestyle, one that includes heaps of adversity. Ford has noted that the NFL game is certainly different than anything he has been through previously, but he says that he has been preparing at a high level for quite some time.
"Honestly, it started in high school. Our offense in high school was kind of like the one that we have here," he said. "I am all about learning from older players and taking advice about how to learn the playbook quickly. I am just taking everything I have learned, and I am putting it all together."
Ford says that he is transitioning nicely to the NFL game, but that he had to initially adapt to the increased level of intensity.
"The intensity level is higher in everything that the coaches say. Their expectations are high," he said. "Being a rookie, there is a transition period coming from college to the NFL and I am really learning the game in terms of situations and growing every day."
“I don’t have a backup plan right now. I am giving everything I have to this.” Rookie defensive end Mat Boesen
5. Former Uber driver trying to reach his NFL dream
Defensive end Mat Boesen is your typical NFL underdog. He faces a tough climb to make the final roster as he sits behind Trent Murphy, Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, and Eddie Yarbrough on the depth chart, but Boesen is hoping that he can improve upon a very successful senior season at Texas Christian University, and he says that his mindset is entirely on cracking the final 53-man roster.
"My goal the entire time has been to make a 53-man roster, that has been my goal since day one," said Boesen. "I don't have a backup plan right now. I am giving everything I have to this."
Boesen began his college career at Boise State, but was dismissed from the team halfway through his freshman season for violating an unspecified team rule. However, Boesen bounced back after transferring to TCU. In two seasons with the Horned Frogs, Boesen compiled 16.5 sacks and 93 total tackles, 23 of which were for a loss. After graduating from TCU in the spring, Boesen became an Uber driver to make ends meet as he chased his NFL dream.
"No crazy stories with Uber, it was good," he said. "I had never had a job before, so it was fun to get out there, work, network, and meet some really cool people."
Although he says he appreciates everything that was done for him in college, Boesen says that the culture in Buffalo has thoroughly impressed him early on.
"This group is special. Obviously, I haven't been to any other places, but this is a special group here," he said. "Being a rookie and coming in, looking up to all of these other guys, trying to do the right thing, they look out for you and they teach you things."