Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane want tougher decisions when it comes down to roster cuts. McDermott says harder decisions means a more talented roster. In year three as head coach of the Bills, getting to the final 53 won't be easy. One position group that will be difficult to downsize—the wide receivers. Right now, there are 12 receivers—Cole Beasley, Victor Bolden Jr., John Brown, Nick Easley, Robert Foster, Zay Jones, Ray-Ray McCloud III, Isaiah McKenzie, Cam Phillips, Andre Roberts, David Sills and Duke Williams. If you’re scratching your head at how this will shake out, you’re not the only one.
One receiver who has come on strong in practice and preseason games as of late is Duke Williams. He’s the roster’s only former CFL product. The receiver spent two seasons in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos and led the league in 2018 with 1,579 receiving yards and tied for the league lead with 11 receiving touchdowns and 88 receptions.
Williams, 26, spent the 2016 training camp with the St. Louis Rams. Prior to going pro, Williams played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College from 2012-2013 and Auburn in 2015.
Like many undrafted players, Williams’ path to the NFL is unique. For the Louisiana native it’s about more than an individual gain, Williams wants to be a success story for his hometown.
“Where I’m from not too many people make it out,” the Reserve, La. native said.
“I have to put myself in position to be successful and I can’t be successful sitting at home. That was my motivation going through all this, just showing myself that it’s not about you. You’ve got to put your pride aside and put others first. Since I’ve been doing that, everything started falling in place.”
Before things started to fall in place, Williams had to learn to be patient.
“At first it was a little tough,” Williams explained. “Then with getting reps, once I started getting more reps then I started to know that anything was possible. Once you work hard and the coaches see that you work hard, even if the ball doesn’t come your way during practices, they can see that you are open.”
“When you’re an undrafted guy you kind of have to just show up on tape a few times and have them [the coaching staff] see the spark that you bring,” veteran wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “Once you start bringing that spark slowly, then more opportunities come. More things happen for you and they put you in more situations for you to showcase yourself. He [Duke Williams] has done a great job of that.”
Putting his style of play on tape has resulted in a combined 87 snaps at wide receiver in the preseason with the most, 38 snaps, coming in the third preseason game. Sizing up at 6’3 and 225 pounds, Williams has played a part in the blocking game, getting a chance with the first team against Detroit. His quarterback appreciates the receiver’s willingness to do whatever it takes.
“It shows his character, it shows what he is as a person,” Josh Allen said. “He doesn’t care for all the so-called glory. He’s not afraid to go stick his face in there and get a block and do all the dirty work that needs to be done. He’s one of those players where he’s not going to complain much, he’s not going to talk much. He’s going to go do his job. When the opportunity presents itself, I think we’ve seen that in the last couple of games, he’s had the opportunity to go out and make a couple big plays and he’s done it.”
Those big plays—two receiving touchdowns in the last two games. Against the Panthers, Williams caught two passes for 22 yards. In the Lions game, the receiver caught all three of his targets for 15 yards. Receiving glowing reviews about character from QB1 means that Williams is making a positive impression on his teammates.
“He’s a guy that you don’t have to give advice to because of all the stuff that he has been through to get to this point,” Beasley said. “He's kind of built up that inner dog, if you will, he’s a dog when he gets out there. There’s no hesitation or anything. He’s just fighting for what he knows he has to earn and that’s exactly what you want to see out of that type of guy. He’s never going to quit out there, he’s going to give it his all. He’s a big physical guy and he makes his presence felt on the field and that’s what you want to see from a guy of that stature. The attitude and work ethic that he brings every day is what you want to see from every guy.”
Williams says the veterans have taught him to be humble. Even though there’s a long line to make the team in the wide receiver room, Williams is taking advice from those he's up against.
“I’m learning from Smoke [John Brown], Dre [Andre Roberts], Zay [Jones], Rob [Foster],” Williams said. “I learn from all the receivers because they’ve been here, they’ve played in the league. I’ve never played in the league for a full season if not a couple of preseason games, I’ve never played it. I look up to all those guys. Even though I may be older than some of them, it’s still something I can learn from. There’s always room to grow, so whatever they can help me with, I’m all ears.”
With roster cuts on Saturday, the fourth and final preseason game will be one last opportunity for Williams to campaign for a spot. It will be a huge chance for the CFL product to put his size, strength and willingness to do the dirty work on tape. When the Louisiana native takes the field on Thursday night, he will remember it’s not about himself. It’s about writing a success story to serve as motivation to others trying to make it out of an area where the odds are stacked against you.
“Not too many could probably make it out of my shoes if they had to take the route I took, but at the end of the day it was all a learning process for me,” Williams said. “It humbled me, and it turned me into the man I am today. I don’t regret anything I went through. Maybe I had to go through that for a reason to become the person I am. It’s just a story to tell one of these days when I’m done playing football. It’s just a story to tell these kids who are watching me and these fans that look up to me that anything is possible as long as they believe.”