He may have been a five-star recruit, the second best running back in the country coming out of high school and Mr. Football for the state of Alabama.
He may have been a back-to-back 1,100-yard rusher in the SEC and a national champion.
But on Buffalo’s roster right now, T.J. Yeldon is fourth in the running back rotation at training camp.
Despite a much different pecking order with the Bills, Yeldon is unfazed and determined to carve out a role.
“Always competition,” Yeldon said. “It’s always making us better.”
After four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he largely served in a No. 2 role, Yeldon opted for free agency signing a two-year contract with the Bills. When Yeldon signed, the Bills didn’t have rookie Devin Singletary. Yeldon is now competing for snaps with him with the second unit, knowing LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore are getting first team work.
After being a highly-touted prospect in high school, and a successful player in college, the NFL has presented Yeldon with a much different set of circumstances.
“I’ve always been under the radar since I got into the league with Jacksonville,” Yeldon said. “My goal is to always come out and work. I’m healthy and my goal is to keep getting a lot of catches and runs.”
Yeldon led the Jaguars in yards from scrimmage last season  had a career-high four receiving touchdowns and became the first back since Maurice-Jones Drew in 2011 to have more than three in a season.
Yeldon shined his rookie season with the Jaguars. He had 740 yards, the most by a Jaguars rookie since 2006.
The running back finds himself in a situation not unlike those of his former Alabama teammates now with him on Buffalo’s roster in Robert Foster and Levi Wallace. Foster and Wallace went undrafted as rookies and carved out roles for themselves with the Bills.
Now they’re both battling for starting spots after successful rookie seasons, though Foster is far from being comfortable.
“I’m in the same boat as him,” Foster said. “Regardless of what happened last year, I still have a responsibility to benefit the team and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Yeldon is still the same running back that Foster saw at Alabama. He prides himself on physicality. Pads went on for the first time this past Saturday at camp, which should allow him to show off that trait.
“That’s why the pads come on, to be physical,” Yeldon said.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been more creative with his use of running backs. Daboll will line them up on the outside and snap it in a five-wide set or motion them back to Josh Allen’s side for a handoff.
Buffalo’s backs have been more active on check down passes, designed screen plays and swing passes as the Bills try to teach Allen to take what’s given to him and not always look for the deep ball.
“We try to do whatever we can do to help the quarterback, being able to move the running back,” Daboll said. “They have to be smart too to be lined up at different spots if you’re trying to be lined up at one, two or in the backfield. The more they can do in the passing game the more value they can have for us.”
That should help Yeldon’s cause knowing he is coming off a career high 55 catches last season. For reference, Zay Jones led the Bills with 56 receptions in 2018.
Click through to see the best photos from Day 4 of 2019 Buffalo Bills Training Camp, presented by Connors and Ferris.
Though nailing down a defined role in Buffalo’s offensive backfield could prove challenging for Yeldon, Wallace still expects to see the same player he watched on YouTube before he even went to Alabama. He describes Yeldon as an all-purpose back.
His high school coach, Glenn Vickery, feels all-purpose is a very appropriate description of his former running back. Yeldon is more about actions rather than words.
“There are some guys that enjoy grabbing the mic and talking and some guys would rather get dressed and go to practice and talk to his teammates,” Vickery said. “T.J.’s always been the latter when I’ve been around.”
Yeldon has been in the league long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed. Just two years after he was drafted, the Jaguars decided to select running back Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. The move immediately made Yeldon the backup.
Of course there is a benefit to being behind a pair of future Hall of Fame backs on an NFL roster. You can watch how they work and see what makes them so successful.
So far, Gore has been teaching Yeldon to be more patient and adjust his pad level and learning that every run won’t be for a touchdown.
It’s possible that Yeldon gets the least amount of work he’s ever received in his professional career this season with the Bills. While he remains under the radar, one thing that won’t change is Yeldon’s drive to compete.
“Nobody wants to be the number two back,” Yeldon said. “My goal is to always strive and be the best. I’ve worked hard and I’m going to keep doing that and see what happens.”