The Bills welcomed 29 new players to their team this offseason via free agency and the NFL Draft. That's 29 players who have to learn a new playbook, meet teammates, understand their role and buy into a new culture. Not an easy task to begin with. Throw in the obstacle of having to do this with just a computer screen to connect, now all of it becomes even tougher. COVID-19 has definitely thrown NFL teams a curve ball, but Buffalo isn't letting this hurdle get in the way of building relationships with teammates.
"One of the things that Sean [McDermott] did in one of our very first group meetings with everybody after the draft was make sure that the veterans had some of the rookies phone numbers and vice versa," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "Some of the rookies had veterans phone numbers at their position and guys have crossed over. They're communicating with the young guys, the young guys are talking to the veterans. They're developing that bond that we would ordinarily be developing at Orchard Park, developing that chemistry that's necessary to bring your team together."
Players interact and get to know each other during position and team meetings, but what creates a solid bond is what happens outside of organized team activities. Defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson, new to the team by way of the Seattle Seahawks, is thankful for group chats during this virtual offseason.
"We have a group chat where we all talk, crack jokes and stuff," Jefferson said. "Like I said there's a lot of good personalities. Hopefully when I get there I can cling to guys more and get to know them more because it's still weird via zoom."
Another way players are getting to know each other in a virtual setting is through shared interests.
"I think a lot of our guys are keeping in good contact, whether it's getting together on the side or playing video games together," special teams coordinator Heath Farwell said. "We have a bunch of young players that on the calls before meetings say, 'Let's get on the game tonight.' That's way over my head, I don't play video games. They're doing a good job of staying in good contact with each other and have good banter back and forth. I think with our culture that we have here, over the years, I think the good players have leadership."
Leadership extends beyond the field. Leadership is more than just knowing the playbook front to back. It's welcoming new teammates and making them feel comfortable, feel as if they've been a part of the team for a while. After free agency and the draft, McDermott looked to his leaders to start building relationships with new teammates outside of meetings. One example is receiver John Brown offering up his time and space to train with rookie Gabriel Davis in May.
"I was literally just with Smoke today," Davis said when the two trained together in May. "I just left his house, stayed with him for like four days. Now I'm going to go to Cali and going to see Isaiah Hodgins. I'm going to see Matt Barkley as well, Zack Moss too. We'll probably all get together. Whenever I come back to Florida, I will go back down to see John Brown. Trying to get around as much as I can."
For rookies who are creating bonds with older teammates, it's more than a simple exchange of text messages. Rookies believe it's important to build chemistry by also showing their dedication to the team.
"I think a lot of the football relationships, it's kind of like your dedication to the team," rookie defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. "I feel like the veterans will see how invested I am, how much I want to win and be a part of this program. Our relationship can obviously start from that. As teammates we'll have a certain level of connectivity just from being around all the time, but I want to really show them that I'm dedicated. I want to be able to help them out as much as possible and be a part of the team."
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has made sure to check in on several position groups Zoom meetings in order to watch interaction between teammates. Daboll said there's joy in witnessing how his players have welcomed new players, specifically the wide receivers.
"It's about the best part of my day because the receiver room is fantastic in terms of their personalities," Daboll said. "The conversations they have, the way they go about learning and the competition. Guys like Smoke [Brown], Beasley, Andre Roberts are always there for Diggs and these young guys. Some guys that have been in our system for a while like Robert [Foster] and Isaiah [McKenzie], they keep it light. Isaiah McKenzie has a way of keeping things light and he does a great job of making guys laugh."
Feeling comfortable enough to laugh with one another in a setting that's completely uncomfortable to begin with means this group knows the importance of constructing connections. It starts with McDermott and the coaching staff, but it's up to the players to put it into action.
"They've taken it upon themselves to reach out to each other, communicate and talk," Frazier said. "That's the way we have to do it now because we can't be around one another. They're doing it. They're communicating, they're getting to know each other virtually and through phone calls."
For the group of rookies who have about the shortest end of the stick in all of this, the group couldn't have imagined this is how their offseason would go. If anything, the communication amongst each other and new team has made them even more ready to get to Buffalo.
"This is definitely not [the offseason I was expecting]," Epenesa said. "It's exciting nonetheless. I'm just really looking forward to getting into town, that's probably what I'm extremely excited about."
All of the extra communication taking place in order to create strong relationships is just one way this team is going out of their way to make sure no time is wasted once they get back to One Bills Drive.