Ty Powell has made a home for himself in Buffalo thanks primarily to his special-teams work with the Bills.
Now heading into his third season with the team, he hopes to find a spot as a regular contributor on defense. Powell is currently running with the second team at middle linebacker behind Preston Brown, meaning he’s just a play away from filling a critical role for a defense that expects to challenge for the top spot in the NFL.
“You always come into the year hoping you can show yourself more,” Powell said recently, “but I love playing special teams. I want to play special teams, so if that’s what I have to do I’m going to play special teams. But I want to be on the field.”
Powell played a team-leading 278 snaps on special teams in 2014, nearly 60 percent. He finished fifth on the team with six tackles in that role.
The Bills demonstrated their faith in Powell by opting not to re-sign veteran Brandon Spikes, who returned to the New England Patriots. With Spikes gone, the Bills have just five linebackers who have played in the NFL, including Manny Lawson, who projects as a strong-side linebacker in coach Rex Ryan’s scheme.
Brown and Nigel Bradham are the unquestioned starters and will be counted on to play in all situations. The jobs behind them, however, are up for grabs.
Powell, who has 23 tackles and one sack in 19 career games, qualifies as the most experienced among the group of players competing for reserve roles, a collection that also includes Buffalo native Jimmy Gaines, second-year veteran Randell Johnson, sixth-round draft pick Tony Steward and undrafted free agents Andrew Hudson and AJ Tarpley.
Powell doesn’t view his experience, however brief it may be, as a big leg up.
“In a way, that’s kind of scary because they’re coming in to compete and take your spot,” he said of the young players at linebacker. “It’s a long season, so anything can happen. … It’s my third year, so it’s my time to step up.”
Ryan has seen that throughout the spring in voluntary workouts.
“Powell has been the most impressive for me,” he said. “He’s just smart, picks things up quick. Obviously he was more of a special teams guy. Quite honestly, if he doesn’t play a snap, that’s fine by me because that means Preston Brown is playing. But I like Powell. He’s really jumped out to me.”
Amazingly, Powell said he’s playing his sixth different position since entering college. A former high school quarterback and cornerback, Powell feels like he’s finally found a home at “mike” linebacker.
“They had this scheme my first year here, but now I’m inside, so I really just refer back to Nigel, because Nigel’s been in this defense,” Powell said. “So I’m really learning off of him, but I do feel like this is my natural position.”
Asked about his journey to get to this point, Powell made it clear that he hopes the meaty chapters are still unwritten.
“I really don’t want to look back yet,” he said. “I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go. ... Everybody has a story. That’s just my story. I don’t want to finish it quite yet by looking back.”
Gaines, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, also hopes to write a great story of his own by making the 53-man roster of his hometown team.
“I just try to control what I can,” he said. “The only thing I can control is making plays out here on the field. If I do that, then we’ll see what happens.”
“He’s been here awhile, he was also at the rookie camp as well,” Ryan said of Gaines. “We’ll see what he can do. I like the look in his eyes. I think he works extremely hard, so he’ll add to that competition as well.”
So will Steward, who couldn’t have asked for a better situation coming out of Clemson, and Tarpley, whose intelligence coming from Stanford is an obvious trait.
“I think it will be good competition,” Ryan said.