Ike Boettger grew up like most football players, with the dream of hearing his name called in the NFL Draft. He knew that dream had most likely become a fantasy when he sustained a ruptured Achilles during his senior season at Iowa.
"Having that kind of taken away in my last year was brutal," Boettger said. "But then I just kind of shifted my mindset to, 'What is it going to take to beat someone out who got drafted?' Which is really what you have to do at that point."
Boettger signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent and spent his first two seasons shuffling between the active roster and the practice squad. He started his first NFL game last season and then started nine more, including all three playoff games.
While being drafted is surely a dream for most players, Boettger is proof that pro success is as much a product of the work that comes afterward. More examples are littered throughout the Bills' roster. All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were selected in the fifth and seventh rounds, respectively. Matt Milano, a fifth-round pick, signed a four-year extension in March. Two standouts from the 2020 draft class - kicker Tyler Bass and wide receiver Gabriel Davis were day three picks.
So, what separates those who make it from those who do not? The eight players who heard their name called by the Bills last week (along with the undrafted free agents who hitch on with the team) will spend the coming months figuring that out.
For Boettger, it started with getting a leg up on the playbook.
"Now everybody's a super-talented player, but what are you going to do to separate yourself on the field by knowing the playbook inside and out, knowing the schemes and knowing how the guys next to you play so you can learn how to play with them and play well?" he said.
Boettger spent his rookie minicamp and the subsequent OTAs absorbing the offense, with each full day of practice followed by an hour or so of personal study at home. He revisited the playbook two to three times a week during his month off leading up to training camp.
"When training camp started, I felt like I kind of already knew it," he said. "And that's what really matters."
Learning the offense, Boettger said, becomes easier as a young player if you find a veteran who is willing to mentor you. That's the same advice second-round pick Boogie Basham received from his cousin, Tarell, who was a third-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 2017.
"He definitely said to go out there and do what you've been doing since day one, which is going hard at all times," Basham said. "He also said to be open to learning from guys around you and don't be afraid to ask questions and stuff like that."
Nutrition and conditioning are other factors that comes into play. Boettger recalls having a regimented routine as a college athlete. Meals and workouts were set for him.
"In the NFL you've got a long, long offseason where it's just really on you," he said. "So, in my head, that's an opportunity for me, if I take it seriously, just to get a leg up on the competition that might not be doing all that stuff."
For some players, sticking around might require settling into a niche role. Tyler Matakevich was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers during the seventh round in 2016 following a productive career as a linebacker at Temple. He appeared in all 16 games as a rookie thanks to his prowess on special teams.
Safety Damar Hamlin, who was selected by the Bills during the sixth round last week, was described by ESPN analyst Todd McShay as a "special teams maven."
"Throughout this whole process I've just been preaching that," Hamlin said. "I'm just willing to do whatever just to be a contributor on the team. I don't care if I got to pass out water at halftime. I just want to be on a winning team and contribute.
"No matter what it is I'm willing to do it. I don't got no pride. If you know me you know I'm a team player from Day 1. No matter what it is I'm ready to do it. If coach needs it, I'm there."
Hamlin was teammates at the University of Pittsburgh with Bills cornerback Dane Jackson, a fellow sixth-round pick who made the most of his playing time as a rookie and could compete for a starting job next season. Hamlin said he plans to keep his head down and follow the direction of the veterans and the coaching staff.
His fellow draftees seem to be embracing a similar mindset.
"I'm just ready to get in the building and learn from the guys who are there and be the best teammate I can possibly be," Spencer Brown, an offensive tackle who was selected during the third round, said. "I don't have it all figured out. I'll be the first to say that, so I'm just going to go in there and get as much information as I possibly can and just get better every day and compete."
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"I'm just really excited to get in there," fifth-round pick Tommy Doyle said. "Do what the coaches ask me to do. Compete. Shut my mouth and just earn the respect of my teammates."
That approach has worked for Boettger, who signed a new one-year deal in April.
"Your time in the NFL is such a short period of time in your life," he said. "I just figured I might as well give it all I got and see what happens."