The fourth time may be the charm in Jay Ross’ bid to make an NFL roster.
Ross is making a strong challenge to earn a backup spot on the defensive line for the Buffalo Bills. It’s his fourth NFL training camp and his second with the Bills.
Defensive line will be one of the key positions to watch tonight in the Bills’ exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings have ranked among the top 10 in rushing five of the past six seasons thanks to All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson. While it’s doubtful Peterson will play much, if at all, tonight, Minnesota still boasts one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.
Ross is an unheralded, 6-foot-3, 312-pounder who has been firmly entrenched on the second team all summer. In fact, he spent most of the spring with the starters while Kyle Williams rehabilitated from surgery. Ross has seen plenty of snaps with the first-team in training camp too, whenever Williams or Marcell Dareus have needed a rest.
The Bills probably will keep six defensive linemen. That’s how many Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine usually kept during his New York Jets tenure the past four years. Williams, Dareus and Alex Carrington are the starters. Ross, veteran Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant were on the second team in the preseason opener in Indianapolis. Torell Troup and Jarron Gilbert are the next two, and they need to make an impact in the preseason games to break into the top six.
Ross, who was undrafted out of East Carolina University, is excited about the quality practice time he has received.
“My first couple camps, I’d take three reps and come out,” Ross said. “Sometimes I’d get worked in with the twos. But this is the best opportunity I’ve had to actually make the team in preseason. I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
Ross was part of a great defensive line at East Carolina that included Linval Joseph, a second-round pick who starts for the New York Giants, and C.J. Wilson, a seventh-round pick who is a key reserve for Green Bay. Those three helped East Carolina win back-to-back Conference USA titles in 2008 and 2009. All three were named this week to East Carolina’s all-time team.
“Coach Roggeman, my D-line coach who passed away, used to always say stay relentless,” said Ross, referring to the late Thomas “Rock” Roggeman. “We just had competition week in and week out who was going to make the most tackles and sacks. We took pride in that. We’d go out with fire in our pants just to compete.”
Ross’ measurables weren’t exceptional enough to get him drafted. He was with the Saints’ camp in 2010 and the Packers in 2011. He spent most of last season on the Bills’ practice squad. He appeared in one game.
“I know my first year in the league, I wasn’t using my hands well,” he said. “I’ve worked on the use of my hands over the years and gotten my handwork and footwork better. I’m still working on my footwork. But I know where I need to be. I have to shed blocks and get separation. I think I’m a whole lot better than I was as a rookie.”
Is the Bills’ depth along the “middle three” of the defense good enough?
Branch, a seventh-year veteran, is the only backup of the group with proven credentials. He has 34 career starts. Branch could fill any of the three line spots — the nose tackle, the 3-technique (opposite the outside shoulder of a guard) and Carrington’s end position (opposite the head or outside shoulder of an offensive tackle).
Ross has seen almost all of his practice time at the nose or 3-technique. Ditto for Troup, who is healthy after battling back troubles for three seasons.
Bryant is a 6-4, 300-pounder who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He has a master’s degree in sports management from Northwestern University. Gilbert is a 6-5, 289-pounder who entered the league as a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2009. Bryant was on the Bills’ practice squad the last month of last season. Gilbert was on the Bills’ practice squad last year and the Jets’ practice squad most of 2011.