PITTSFORD – T.J. Graham’s best attribute is his speed, which is good because he’s being forced to play catch-up during training camp.
The Buffalo Bills’ third-year receiver sat out spring practices as he recovered from offseason hip surgery. He’s been a full participant at St. John Fisher College and the first two preseason games, but the road back has been long.
“There has been some ups and downs. The first couple of days it felt like I was newborn deer, basically. My legs felt funny,” Graham said. “Sometimes in and out of routes things feel weird, but I think I’m finally figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”
The injury is actually something he fought through all of last season.
“I was compensating for it,” he said. “Coming back now, things work differently. I can run faster and more fluid, but I’m still feeling it out. Trying to get my legs underneath me is the problem now.
“Speed is my biggest asset – running fast and getting open.”
Coach Doug Marrone said the lack of participation in the spring has been tough for Graham to overcome.
“He didn’t get a lot of work in, so I think it’s a process for him. I don’t think naturally he’s going to come back and be right where he was before. I think he’s working his way back in,” Marrone said. “I think there are probably some things that he’s been discouraged with that he’d like to have back. There are also some things he’s done well. … It’s early and we’ll see how he progresses.”
Quarterback EJ Manuel has been pleased with Graham’s progress.
“T.J. has done a great job since he’s come back from his injury in his offseason and rehabilitating. I thought he showed great routes and things like that,” Manuel said. “In practice, he’s still kind of working himself back into it. He missed all of OTAs so I guess he’s playing a little bit of catch-up, but I think he’s coming along just fine with his injury.”
At the start of camp, Graham wasn’t completely trusting of his health. As a result, he admittedly ran slower than he’s capable of. For a player with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, learning how to hit the accelerator again hasn’t been as simple as just standing on the gas pedal.
“Being a speedy guy, I’ve got to come out there and run fast every play,” he said. “A lot of times the last couple weeks, I probably haven’t run as fast as I should have, but coming off the injury and coming back out here, I’m kind of figuring it out, knowing what to do and how to do it.”
Time is of the essence as Graham does that.
Receiver is one of the deepest positions on the team, with a current top five of Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Chris Hogan all being near-locks for the roster. That means the competition for one or two jobs among Graham, Marcus Easley and Kevin Elliott, among others, will be fierce.
“We’re all really good, and the fact that we’re all really good is going to make us all even that much better,” Graham said. “Competing in the room is only going to make us stand out more – competition brings out the best.”
Graham has had issues with drops during camp but said his confidence has not dipped.
“I don’t have to worry about hurting my hip again,” he said. “Seeing the competition helps you step your game up, too.”
One area that could give Graham a leg up on his competition is on special teams.
During Friday’s game at Carolina, he caught one pass for 11 yards. He also had one kickoff return for 38 yards – a role that he’s worked on frequently at St. John Fisher.
In the preseason opener against the New York Giants, he returned a punt 14 yards while also making two catches (on six targets) for 23 yards.
“I’m a receiver first, but I have other abilities. I’m pretty good at returning,” he said. “I’ve been coming along with that. At first when I came here they told me to focus solely on receiver, so now I’m getting back to some of the things I did in college.”