Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas spent good deal of time at training camp last summer watching this rookie from the sidelines. And it didn't take him long to like what he was seeing from Devin Singletary.
Witnessing first-hand what the running back had to offer the Bills offense in that camp setting reminded him of another preseason back when Thomas was the feature back for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
"The signs that I saw from him reminded me of when I was a junior and Barry Sanders was a freshman coming in (at Oklahoma State)," said Thomas.
Thomas isn't saying that Singletary is going to be the same player as his former college teammate and fellow Hall of Famer. He draws the parallel between Singletary and Sanders because of how little was known about each of them at the time when they stepped onto the scene.
"Same kind of situation," said Thomas. "Just like Devin Singletary this past summer, (Barry) hadn't shown moves, so you didn't know what this guy could do. I saw the same thing with Devin this past summer."
When Singletary began shaking defenders out of their shoes, or slipping through what looked like a sure tackle, Thomas was intrigued.
"I'm like, man…" said Thomas of watching some of Singletary's escapes to gain additional yardage. "And then in the playoff game, he showed me a lot. He showed me that this is a guy that needs to be out there. If you've got 60 snaps on offense, you need him on the field for 54 or 55 of them."
Singletary was arguably the most effective player on the field for the Bills in their Wild Card loss at Houston. He had 19 total touches for 134 yards from scrimmage, including a team-high 76 receiving yards, second only to DeAndre Hopkins 90 in the game.
"He can catch the ball. You don't just throw a running back out there to play wide receiver," said Thomas of Singletary being split out wide by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. "Usually you put them in the backfield and they run routes from there. But they put him out at wide receiver. I'm like, this kid has got something. I've been impressed with him."
Singletary's mentor, Frank Gore, was calling the rookie running back "a natural" after his first preseason game, and his opinion of Singletary was unchanged at season's end.
"A guy who loves ball," said Gore. "Great eyes, great feet. A good kid and a baller. He's just going to get better. He's going to be a great player in this league."
First-year players had very productive seasons for the Bills in 2019 on offense, defense and special teams. Scroll through to view photos and stats from Bills rookies during the 2019 season.
Singletary's eyes and feet helped him finish second in the league in yards per carry average for players with 150 carries or more. The only player to beat his 5.1 yards per carry average was Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (6.85), his friend from their South Florida youth football days.
Thomas, however, believes Singletary's greatest asset is something different.
"Frank said great vision, but I'll go the other way, I think he's got great balance," Thomas said. "Just some of the runs that I saw over the year and really the runs that I saw in the Houston game. There were three or four times, I thought he was down and he's out for another three or four yards. It's his balance that's the key. He's what? Five-seven? So low center of gravity, built low to the ground. That's to his advantage. So he uses his balance and comes off blocks very, very well and he seems to be a powerful young man too."
Singletary did not become the Bills feature back until Week 9 against Washington, but over the final nine weeks of the season he finished sixth among NFL running backs with 603 rushing yards. This despite being given the Week 17 game off against the Jets.
Thomas believes Singletary needs to get between 20 and 25 touches a game going forward. He sees the back's ability to extend plays for extra yardage as a major asset for Buffalo's offense.
"Maximizing yardage on plays comes naturally to him," said Thomas. "The more times that he touches the ball, the more and more you'll see plays like that. He'll continue to make a lot of people miss. He needs to be the guy out there doing what I think he's capable of doing."
The Hall of Famer's only concerns about extending plays is it always increases the risk of fumbles, something that compromised his effectiveness in the Steelers game in Week 15, when he was stripped twice by the team that was the best in football at forcing fumbles this past season.
Singletary had four total fumbles on the year but lost only one.
Thomas admired Singletary's play at arm's length this year, knowing that the rookie had Frank Gore as a daily veteran voice in the locker room. If Gore does not return for the 2020 season, however, Thomas would like to offer counsel to Singletary as he enters his second season.
One area of Singletary's game where Thomas would like to offer some assistance is in picking up the blitz, an area where the Hall of Famer excelled.
"When you look at the last game against the Texans he probably needs to tighten up on his pass block a little bit," Thomas said.
It's not an assignment issue as Thomas sees it. Singletary knows where to be and when. It's more about the technique, something Thomas learned in practice going against the likes of Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan and Darryl Talley.
"I think it's just his positioning," said Thomas. "It's about him getting the square up look on the linebacker or defensive back and actually kind of knowing what that person does. When I had to match up with Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett, I knew Darryl was a guy that had long arms that was going to try to grab me before I got him. Cornelius used quickness around the edge.
"He's already in the right spots. If he can just get those hands inside on the guy who's blitzing before he gets to him, then he has an outstanding chance of limiting the number of blitzes because once you pick one or two up every single game... they might not blitz as much. Then hopefully you can hurt them in the passing game."
In no way should anyone put Singletary in Thomas' class at this point, but it is interesting to note that their rookie seasons mirror one another to some degree. Thomas saw more work as a rookie and was a more productive pass catcher, but on 45 fewer touches Singletary trailed Thomas by just 80 total yards.
|Thurman Thomas' rookie season in 1988|
|Rushing - 207 carries, 881 yards, 4.3 avg. 2 TDs|
|Receiving – 18 receptions, 207 yards, 11.6 avg. 6 TDs|
|Totals – 225 touches, 1,089 yards, 8 TDs|
|Devin Singletary's rookie season in 2019|
|Rushing – 150 carries, 775 yards, 5.1 avg. 2 TDs|
|Receiving – 29 receptions, 194 yards, 6.7 avg. 2 TDs|
|Totals – 180 touches, 969 yards, 4 TDs|
If there is one part of Singletary's game that is similar to Thomas' it's his ability to navigate through the smallest of creases and generate a positive gain when there's not much there to begin with.
"He can see the creases," said Thomas. "I think with his low center of gravity he can squirm through those holes and find those lanes and that one yard extra could turn into 10 because when he comes out of breaking a tackle he's ready to run again. He's not off balance, trying to find his footing. He's usually straight forward and the thing I like is he falls forward all the time."
What Buffalo's front office might add to the roster at the running back position with just Singletary, TJ Yeldon and Christian Wade currently under contract remains to be seen. But when it comes to forecasting what the young man teammates call "Motor" could do with a full season in 2020, Thomas sees big numbers.
"He'll get between 1,100 is 1,200 rushing yards if he's the main guy," said Thomas. "He had almost 800 yards rushing and how many games did he miss? Four? So four more games this year he could've had 1,100 this season. I just think the more touches he gets the better he's going to be for this offense, and it's going to take a lot of pressure off Josh (Allen)."