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How Chris Hogan is preparing to fight for his job with the Bills

Every player feels slighted. Every red-blooded competitor feels overlooked at some point and uses the memory as fuel. Surly, angry, endless fuel.

Then, there’s Chris Hogan.

The former Penn State lacrosse player who played one year of college football at Monmouth, who was discarded by San Francisco, the New York Giants and Miami before latching on with the Buffalo Bills, is a restricted free agent.

So of course he hears all, sees all. His employer – General Manager Doug Whaley – has already declared a wide receiver a prominent need. And when Whaley listed five players in the mix for the No. 2 job already, he didn’t even mention Hogan’s name. Leonard Hankerson, Greg Salas, even Greg Little got the GM’s love but, no, not the 27-year-old who’s been a Bill since Nov. 6, 2012.

The team’s director of pro personnel, Jim Monos, added that Buffalo needs “somebody opposite of Sammy to be a real threat to that defense.”

Overlooked. Again.

Heck, yeah, these words are motivation for Hogan.

“Oh yeah. One hundred percent,” Hogan said. “I’ve been around long enough to know this is something they’re going to do every single year. But every single year, I have that same kind of mentality where it’s like ‘Oh man, well, I’m just going to have to work that much harder to outplay these guys.’ ”

While on the phone, Hogan looks inward for a moment. He thinks back to last summer – his day-in, day-out approach.

“Maybe I relaxed a bit the year before when I thought I had a good year and proved myself a little bit,” Hogan said. “But I’m back to that old ‘underdog, me-against-the-world’ mentality. And I’m excited to get back next season, hopefully, to Buffalo.”

So this offseason, it’s back to being the “7-Eleven” cult hero from Hard Knocks. He hit the reset button. Hogan wants to be the player nobody knows, the one that has fans in the stands flipping through their program. If he was too lax last offseason, he’s not this offseason. Five days a week, Hogan wakes up at 4 a.m. to make the hourlong haul from his home in Long Island to his “Freak Strength” gym in New Jersey.

The wrist he wrecked the final month of the season and forced him to down Nyquil just to sleep at night is healing. Surgery repaired those torn ligaments and he expects to be 100 percent this week.

Chances are, the cap-strapped Bills offer a low tender to Hogan at best. In 2015, Hogan caught 36 passes for 450 yards with two touchdowns. Is he the classical “JAG” (just a guy) or a hidden gem?

Last year, sure, sporadic “I’ve arrived” thoughts dulled his drive.

“Maybe there was a point in camp where I was a little too relaxed,” Hogan said, “or my mind wasn’t all completely there. It’s something I really reflected on this offseason. I want to get back to being that kid nobody knew – the kid who had to work his butt off to get to where he is today.

“That’s the person that I want to be.”

The roots of this Chris Hogan are in Ramapo High School where, after riding the bench all season as a sophomore, he had 100-plus yards and the game-winning touchdown at Giants Stadium to win the state title game.

The roots of this Chris Hogan are in a 2011 Fordham Pro Day where, with NFL teams on site to scout others, Hogan lit up the workout. He ran a blistering 4.47 in the 40-yard dash, embarrassed all others in speed drills and also bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times – an unheard of combination. That 40 time would’ve been good for 12th at the combine. The bench? First.

Some scouts saw a, well, Caucasian wide receiver who caught only 12 passes in one year playing both ways at Monmouth and suggested Hogan play safety.

So this February, Hogan thinks back to that juncture. Such needle-in-a-haystack memories must return, must stick.

“I know I had my close family and friends and fiancée supporting me,” Hogan said. “But everyone else was probably wondering what was I thinking trying to do this.

“I put my mind to making it to the NFL and wouldn’t quit until it happened.”

Book it, says his agent, Art Weiss. Weiss sees Wayne Chrebet all over again. Two decades ago, Weiss represented Chrebet and saw the same signs of greatness waiting to burst.

Chrebet was dismissed in New York until he couldn’t be dismissed anymore.

There’s the natural talent. Stories of Hogan picking up literally any sport and dominating are common – he crushed seven homers at LeSean McCoy’s charity softball game last summer, one sailing nearly 370 feet.

There’s an edge behind that talent, too.

Since the season ended, Hogan has been waking up at 4 a.m. – “I don’t know a lot of guys who want to wake up at 4 in the offseason,” he said – gathers his gear and hits the road. It helps that his fiancée, Dr. Ashley Boccio, is a workout freak, too. She gets up at 5 a.m. before heading to the hospital. Hogan gets to his gym in Oakland, N.J., by 6 a.m., and trains with strength coach Mike Guadango.

Some days, David Guetta is blaring. Other days, it’s Linkin Park or old-school 90s rap.

The No. 1 focus this offseason is flexibility and detailing his routes.

Mentally, Guadango tries to push all negative thoughts “out of his head.” Physically, the two are in Phase One. Guadango wants “all motor patterns firing properly.” A warm-up can last up to an hour and a half. Then, he’ll run. Hogan rips through a circuit of sprints and, this year, Guadango is emphasizing footwork drills, too. Most issues for Hogan in seasons past have stemmed from the ground up, the trainer said.

Then, Hogan gets into route running. Then, he’ll lift weights.

After moving into his new home in Long Island last year, Hogan might have visited Guadango two to three times a week. Now, it’s always five.

Because, well, the Bills wasted no time seeking his replacement. Hankerson and Salas were signed the last two weeks of the season, as Greg Little and Jarrett Boykin were inked one week after the team finished 8-8. All four have NFL experience.

Onto Indianapolis, the search for a wide receiver continues.

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Guadango sees Hogan’s day-to-day response to the moves, the rhetoric.

“Every year, they draft a receiver,” Guadango said. “This isn’t anything new for us. It’s just how are we going to look at this. It’s ‘Let’s stay the course, let’s worry about us, let’s stay positive.’ Every day is an improvement so there’s nothing to be down about. We’re constantly progressing.

“Chris is one of a kind. Not many people do what Chris does with the passion he does it.”

So, yes, Hogan admits he “absolutely” interprets Whaley’s words as a challenge.

“I’ve been in this business long enough to know they’re always going to be looking for a guy who can do my job better,” Hogan said. “As a competitor, yeah, absolutely. It makes you want to get in the gym a couple times a day.

“What I can control – what I’m focusing on this year – is myself and how I can get better as a football player.”

He has no choice but to only worry about himself. His profession demands it. A wide receiver can’t control how many times the ball is thrown his way, can’t control the merry-go-round of quarterbacks that’s held this franchise back for 16 years. Who knows? If the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hogan was nestled into the slot in New England’s offense, maybe he’d be a 90-catch receiver.

Instead, he’s had three quarterbacks in three seasons with the Bills and time is running out.

Hogan and teammate Robert Woods mostly bite their tongues. Woods admitted midseason he was a “blocking receiver” in this offense. And both gritted through excruciating pain – Woods with a torn groin, Hogan the wrist – as the Bills ran the ball 31.8 times per game and threw deep to Sammy Watkins. Their targets dwindled.

Either way, both receivers are at a crossroads and could now disappear for good. There’s certainly a chance this 7-Eleven goes out of business at St. John Fisher College by August.

Hogan stays optimistic about his future and his offense’s future.

“As the years come – if I’m able to be with this team next year – the offense is just going to keep progressing,” Hogan said. “I think you’ll see more guys get the ball and we’ll start to spread the ball around. There are a lot of weapons on that field and we’re tough to prepare for. For me, it’s about being accountable and letting Tyrod know and the coaches know they can count on me to put me in the game.

“This is going to be a big camp for me – an important one.”

So those drives to the gym are therapeutic. Alone with his thoughts, he thinks about the workout ahead, what’s at stake, the challenge awaiting him when he does return to One Bills Drive.

It cannot come soon enough.

“I’m ready to get back to that hungry kid who won’t take no for an answer,” Hogan said, “and wants to succeed so bad.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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