PITTSFORD – So just how lost were you?
Dezmin Lewis starts to laugh as soon as he hears the question.
“I was a bit confused out there,” the wide receiver said of his first training camp with the Buffalo Bills last year.
Lewis wasn’t merely a rookie. He was a rookie from a small college, Central Arkansas. He didn’t learn anything about the intricate details of playing his position there. No one talked with him about making “speed cuts” or “creating separation” or any other technical aspects of playing wide receiver.
Basically, the coaches told him, “Run your route, catch the ball, and make a play.”
Which Lewis did. Well enough to convince the Bills to make him a seventh-round draft pick, the kind of choice that a team invests in a project-type player who has the raw skills that could allow him to play in the NFL but needs time to develop them.
“But I have a great coach and a great group of wide receivers that help me out a lot, so I tip my hat off to them like I always do,” Lewis said. “They really help me along the way and taught me a lot and really helped me with my transition to the NFL.”
“Transition” might be putting it a bit strongly. Lewis spent most of 2015 on the Bills’ practice squad. He played in one game, against Dallas in the second-to-last week of the season, and didn’t make a catch.
Lewis still has to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster. And he still has a long way to go to get there.
“The jump for any college player going in the NFL is a big jump, but I think especially from a small college,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Just getting accustomed to, ‘Hey, the NFL game is this,’ and it is a zillion meetings and things like that. Sometimes, you might have had two or three meetings a week maybe at a small college. Here, you got like two or three a day.
“So, I think he had a tough time with that as a lot of rookies do, but I like the way he came on late last year. You saw him getting a little better as the weeks piled on and at the end of the year we actually played him some. I know he’s confident.”
Early in this year’s training camp at St. John Fisher, however, Lewis seems to be making strides.
He’s running better routes. He’s catching the ball with consistency. Most of all, he’s using his 6-foot-4, 214-pound frame to gain the advantage it should give him against smaller defensive backs. He is making the contested catches that are especially necessary against a defense such as the Bills’, who mostly put their cornerbacks and safeties in tight, man-to-man coverage.
“I think his body type is what you look for in today’s game, with that kind of size that he has,” Ryan said. “And he’s got good hands. We’ll see what happens.”
An opportunity beckons. The Bills have two rock-solid receivers in Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. After that, there are questions. There’s a mad scramble to fill one of the spots below them on the depth chart.
To do it, Lewis needs to demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he no longer is that lost kid from Central Arkansas.
“Here, technique is everything,” Lewis said. “That’s what my (position) coach (Sanjay Lal) teaches every day, and he’s still teaching that now. We’re all just trying to perfect our craft and become great route-runners and receivers in general.”
He was realistic about his chances of making the roster last year. It didn’t take long for him to realize he wasn’t anywhere close to the level of an NFL wide receiver.
“Coming in, everybody wants to play,” Lewis said. “But as you go on and you take reps and you just see, it’s OK to be honest with yourself. I knew that I wasn’t ready.
“I’m thankful that I was able to be on practice squad, because it’s a learning experience going against (starting cornerbacks) Stephon Gilmore and Ron Darby every day. I knew I wasn’t ready, but I’m getting there, slowly getting there, continuing to get better.”
Gilmore was part competitor, part teacher. He would regularly talk with Lewis about his stance, his alignment, and his release off the line.
“Steph is a smart corner,” Lewis said. “He could tell me what route I was running before I ran it.”
He knows there is nothing complicated about what he needs to do to make the team: “Make plays.” Regardless of where they put him, outside or inside. Regardless of who he faces. Regardless of who’s throwing the ball.
Utilize the instruction he gets from his coach and teammates, on both sides of the ball, to the fullest.
“Just come out every day, get better, compete and have fun,” Lewis said. “You’re going to have bad days, you’re going to have good days. But the overall thing is staying consistent, continuing to do it throughout camp and when the season starts and everything.
“So my main thing is coming out, having fun and competing.”