Reporters flocked to his locker. The TV cameras went three rows deep. Jordan Poyer is suddenly living the life of an NFL superstar.
Three weeks ago, that was unimaginable. At that time, Poyer was just another new face in a completely rebuilt Buffalo Bills secondary.
When he said, “I don’t know if any of you knew who any of us were,” in front of all those TV cameras, the Buffalo Bills’ safety couldn’t have been more accurate.
It didn’t take long, however, for fans and media members alike to start asking themselves “who the heck is No. 21?” In the season opener against the New York Jets, he was all over the field, making three tackles, one sack, two passes defensed and an interception.
It was more of the same in Week Two, when he racked up a team-high 11 tackles, one sack and three passes defensed, including two that saved first-half touchdowns.
There is good reason for it to feel as if Poyer has come out of nowhere. Really, who could have seen a former seventh-round draft pick coming off a potentially career-ending injury turning into a player Pro Football Focus has graded as the best safety in the league?
As it turns out, those who know Poyer best swear this exact moment was destined to arrive.
“Yes! Absolutely,” Bills assistant defensive backs coach Bobby Babich says when asked whether he thought Poyer would be this good, this fast with a new team. “People don’t understand the amount of work that Jordan Poyer puts in and the time he spends. He’s absolutely relentless.”
Babich is the main reason Poyer is in Buffalo. Having spent two-plus years with him in Cleveland, he saw firsthand a star in the making. Poyer just needed the right opportunity, Babich believed, and he would take the NFL by storm.
That’s why, with the Bills needing help at safety as free agency approached this past March, Babich campaigned hard for Poyer.
“I brought his name up to all the people who are above me and said, ‘hey, this is a guy we need to take a look at,’ ” Babich said. “Everybody that was involved in the decision looked at the tape that he did have, listened to my input, and we ended up with Jordan.”
Even as a 34-year-old assistant DBs coach, Babich said there was “zero hesitation” on his part to push so hard for his bosses to sign Poyer.
“Jordan Poyer is a person and a player that I have no issue sticking my neck out on the line for,” he said. “I believe that he fit exactly what we want as far as looking for players with our DNA.”
Coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier agreed, wasting little time in securing Poyer’s services. The team signed him to a four-year contract worth up to $13 million. At the time, it looked like big money for a player who had made just 10 career starts and was coming back from a devastating injury. Today, it looks like highway robbery.
“I think he’s a complete player in terms of what he’s done,” McDermott said. “We had some inside knowledge of what Jordan brings to the table, or brought to the table back then, and now what we’re seeing him bring to the table for this football team. … Two games in, I couldn’t say more about the way he’s played.”
“Boy, it was a great decision,” added Frazier. “He’s really stepped up like we were all hoping that he would.”
A future star
Poyer grew up in the picturesque town of Astoria, Ore., a coastal community of about 10,000 that sits at the mouth of the Columbia River, spitting distance from the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis and Clark spent a winter there in 1805-06 and it later became the first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific coast. Originally built on the fur trade and fishing, the scenic settings in the town have provided the backdrop for movies like "The Goonies" and "Free Willy."
It was in Astoria that Jordan and his younger brother Jeramy had a choice every day.
“They could play a sport, or I had a list of a dozen chores that they would have to do after school,” said their mother, Julie. “It was important to me because it kept them out of trouble and kept them focused.”
The Poyer household was competitive “to a fault,” Julie said, “right down to leaving the grocery store, when it was a race to be the first one to the car.”
There is a famous story in his hometown about Jordan that goes like this: In the fall of 2001, the fifth-grade team took the field to play at halftime of the high school varsity’s Friday night game. On the very first play, 10-year-old Jordan uncorks a 50-yard bomb for a touchdown pass.
"He's a prize fighter in a town full of welterweights," Mark Erickson, Poyer’s youth football coach, told The Oregonian in a 2012 feature story on Jordan while he was at Oregon State. "You knew then he was going to be big time."
About that same time, Julie remembers a different game Jordan played against the Knappa Loggers.
“There was this coach from the other team that was running alongside of him, screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Can someone please stop this kid!’ ” his mother recalled. “All the parents and fans are hearing him.”
The Loggers surely did, too, but they were powerless to stop him.
“I thought that day it might be possible for him to get a scholarship to play football,” Julie said.
Jordan’s athletic genes trace to his mother, who started her collegiate career at Oregon State as a softball player, but left the program after her roommate was killed in a car accident.
“That was really hard for me to overcome,” she said.
She transferred to Chemeketa Community College, where she played volleyball. Her success there led her to Eastern New Mexico University.
She is a member of the Athletic Hall of Fame at Eastern New Mexico and the Northwest Athletic Conference for her time at Chemeketa.
“I played anything I could,” she said.
That love of competition was passed on to Jordan – whose first word was “ball,” Julie says.
“From the beginning, it was all about any ball he could pick up,” she said. “He has always been so focused and determined. He knew what he wanted to do from age 3, and every choice and decision since then was to get there.”
Her instincts about his potential to land a scholarship were dead on. Poyer’s high school career is the stuff of legend in Astoria. He led the Fishermen to state titles in football and baseball. As a senior, he won the 4A Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in football, doubling as a dual-threat quarterback and ball-hawking safety. He scored a ridiculous 123 touchdowns in high school. He was the 2009 Cowapa League Player of the Year in basketball as a shooting guard. In all, he earned 11 varsity letters, making him one of the most accomplished athletes in Oregon high school history.
Despite that, he earned just one Division I offer, from Oregon State. Coming from a small town, Poyer was an unknown because he played at a lower level. Many thought his future was in baseball. The Florida Marlins drafted him in the 42nd round in 2009.
“I think kids should play as many sports at possible if they're good at it,” Poyer said. “Each sport, you can learn something that can carry over to the sport you actually want to pursue. I was able to carry over a lot of my baseball attributes to the football field. Hand-eye coordination, for sure. It’s a lot harder to track the ball off a baseball bat than it is a football off the arm of a quarterback.”
When he arrived at Oregon State, the plan was for Poyer to grayshirt, which meant he would earn a scholarship only if one of the other players recruited by the Beavers left the program.
"I didn't know what he could do, because he's just this guy from a little school in Oregon," Beavers coach Mike Riley told The Oregonian in 2012. "But then he gets here and he's the best gunner on coverage teams, he looks good returning punts and he's got the 'it' factor at corner. He is one of the great stories in this state."
Poyer played some baseball for Oregon State, but gave up the sport before his junior football season.
“It came to the point where I had to choose one or the other,” he said. “I still miss the game. One of my old teammates, Michael Conforto, played in the All-Star Game this year. Seeing that definitely made me want to be out there.”
Julie Poyer knew that when that decision had to be made, though, football would win out.
“I watched him play both sports, but the look in his eye when he was playing football was so different,” she said. “You just knew he loved it. That passion is there for it. He loves every minute that he's on the field.”
A steady rise
Poyer played his way onto the field as a true freshman for the Beavers, one of just eight members of the team to do so, by first excelling on special teams.
His playing time steadily increased as he got older, and he would go on to play in all but one game in his college career (a knee injury kept him out against Arizona State as a junior in 2012). By the time he left, he was considered one of the best cornerbacks in program history, becoming the Beavers’ first consensus All-American since 1967.
While football was the easy part, academics were a grind.
“Going through school, he had to study harder than any other kid,” Julie said. “He studied over and over again so that he could play.”
A communications major at Oregon State, Poyer is a few classes away from graduating, something Julie reminds him of almost every time they talk.
“He knows how badly I want him to get his degree,” she said.
All that extra work in the classroom has followed Poyer to the meeting room in the NFL.
“I just knew, without being at his house or anything, he would come in the next day and know what the opponent is doing before we've even met,” Babich said. “His notes are meticulous. His ability to grasp minor conceptual changes is extraordinary. The biggest thing is Jordan understands the why. And if he doesn't understand the why, he's going to go seek out the why, so everything can tie in together as far as how the whole defense operates.”
Following his final college season, Poyer received invitations to the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. It was there, however, that talent evaluators, as they so often do, started poking holes in his game.
“Average size and strength for an outside corner,” reads his scouting report on NFL.com. “Plays well off the line of scrimmage, but doesn't display the skills to press. Doesn’t disengage from blocks consistently. Backpedal is high and slow, receivers eat up his cushion too quickly.”
His poor testing results at both the combine and his Pro Day – coupled with a May 2012 arrest for trying to get into a Corvallis nightclub from which he had been previously banned for trying to enter before turning 21 – dropped him to Philadelphia with a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft.
Poyer, who is listed at 6-foot-0 and 191 pounds, lasted just three games with the Eagles before being released. Babich liked Poyer coming into the draft, and campaigned for the team to claim him on waivers.
Once they started working together, the bond was instantaneous.
“He's been a huge influence on my career,” Poyer said. “I can't say enough about him and the amount of work he's put into myself and the amount of belief he's had in me through the years.
“Every morning, it was Bobby and I in the meeting room going over the defense. I trust him completely. Yeah, he's going to get on my ass sometimes if my keys are wrong, but that's what you want in a coach. I trust him that he's going to put me in the best position to make plays.”
After Babich left the Browns and landed at Florida International University in 2016, he trained Poyer in the offseason.
“The relationship is really strong,” Poyer said. “I want to continue to play well, especially for a guy like him, who has helped me so much.”
Any story on Poyer would not be complete without at least a mention of how his 2016 season ended. After winning a starting job coming into the year, Poyer and the Browns visited the Tennessee Titans in Week Six.
During the second quarter, Poyer was pursuing punt returner Marc Mariani when he was leveled by the Titans’ Antonio Andrews on an illegal blindside block. The impact of Andrews’ shoulder crashing into Poyer’s chest sent him flying at least 10 feet.
Back on the West Coast, Julie was out at breakfast with some friends while the game was on. Half paying attention, she remembers looking up at the TV and saying, “oh, that guy got rocked.”
“Everyone at the table looked at me,” she said. “I'm just like, what's going on? They were like, ‘Julie, that was Jordan.’ I immediately stood up and got as close to the TV as I could. Tears were rolling down my face. He was rolling around the ground –and I know how high is pain tolerance is.”
The TV broadcast went to commercial, and when it came back Poyer was still down on the field.
“It was absolutely awful,” Julie said.
Poyer’s fiancee’s father, Tony, was at the game and was able to call Julie and tell her he was going to be by Poyer’s side.
“Jordan called me in the ambulance and said they were taking him to the hospital, but that made me even more panicked,” Julie said. “Because I knew they had a training room, so why would he need to go to the hospital?
“Of course, I did say to him after he got hurt, 'why couldn't you have played baseball?' ”
Poyer said if the impact of the hit – which left him with a lacerated kidney, bruised liver and internal bleeding – had been even half an inch different, it could have been life threatening. He spent three days in the hospital.
Despite that, he never had any reservations about resuming his career.
“I haven't thought about it honestly one time before I stepped out on that football field,” he said. “Not preseason, not regular season, which is crazy because I thought my head would be racing, but honestly there's so much other (expletive) going on in my head before the game, the last thing I'm thinking about is what happened a year ago.
“It's football. You go out there every Sunday and understand the risks and potential consequences. I love this game and play it with passion. The game has done so much for me that I owe it everything I've got.”
Poyer also has another motivation. He and his fiancée, Rachel, welcomed their first daughter in December, Aliyah.
“She gives me motivation to come in here every day and do what I do,” he said. “I want her in a year from now to kind of understand what daddy is doing. That's what drives me.”
Finding a new home
Forced inactivity because of his injury and the constant strain of losing left Poyer yearning for a fresh start.
Enter the Bills, who signed him just hours after free agency opened.
“The football fans out here are just unreal and you hear about it around the league,” Poyer said on the day he signed. “This is one of the best opportunities I think I’ve ever had in my whole entire life.”
It’s no mistake that the Bills introduced Poyer and fellow safety Micah Hyde at the same time as free-agent signings. The idea was for that pairing to become leaders of the new secondary.
“The fact that the synergy between the two of them has been so good from Day One, it probably goes back to who they are as people,” Frazier said. “Neither one of those guys are big ego guys. They’re more concerned with the team and doing what they can do to help the football team. … You get that type of camaraderie, you have a chance to have a pretty good pair.”
Although they’ve been lined up next to each other for just two games, Poyer and Hyde look as if they have spent two years together.
“Even little things like hanging out off the field. We all went over to Micah’s house the other day and just kind of hung out, watched some Monday Night games,” Poyer said. “Stuff like that carries over to the football field when it comes to crunch time and you look your teammate in the eye, you know he’s fighting for you and you’ve got to fight for him.
“We know what we expect out of ourselves. We just use our play Sundays to speak for ourselves. We are a quiet group outside of the locker room, we all just kind of kick back and hang out with each other. It’s a good relationship with the group of guys that we have.”
Julie came to the home opener against the Jets, and saw for herself why her son was so excited.
“Just the atmosphere is amazing there. He was in such a low place emotionally, that I’m so glad he got a fresh start. He needed that change,” she said. “Seeing the spark in his eye again – every mother wants to see that.”
“He's in a good place with his football, with his personal life he's in a good place. He's happy with his daughter. From last year to this year it’s just been a 180.”