A gigantic opportunity is staring Dez Lewis directly in the face.
The Buffalo Bills’ second-year wide receiver knows what the team’s depth chart looks like. It’s no secret that there are jobs to be won.
Sammy Watkins is a bona fide No. 1 receiver. Robert Woods has been a serviceable No. 2. Outside of that, it’s wide open. Lewis is part of a group of 11 receivers who will battle for three or four jobs.
“He’s definitely going to be competing and he’ll be up for some of those jobs,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said of Lewis. “His work ethic in the weight room, all that – he’s a small-college kid – but he’s really, really taken off. He’s definitely here to compete for one of those jobs.”
Lewis’ rookie season consisted of just one appearance, which came during a Week 16 victory over Dallas. He played nine offensive snaps, but was not targeted in a 16-6 victory. The first 15 weeks of the season were spent toiling away on the practice squad.
“Just the mental part of it – staying focused,” he said was the biggest lesson learned as a rookie. “I didn’t get activated until the last two games, but that didn’t get me down. I stayed motivated, stayed in my playbook … and I got the call-up.”
Because he spent just two games on the Bills’ active roster, Lewis did not earn a credited or accrued season, which made him eligible for the team’s rookie minicamp that was held over the weekend. Compared to where he was a year ago as a seventh-round draft pick out of Central Arkansas, Lewis felt like a completely different player.
“I wouldn’t say I know everything, but I have a great understanding of this game now,” he said. “Coming in my rookie year – I feel like I needed that year. I’m actually glad I wasn’t active sooner, because it gave me a chance to go against the starting defense every day and to learn how to become a wide receiver in the NFL. That’s the main thing I took away from it – my work ethic and just staying positive throughout the whole time. I pretty much feel like I know what to expect now.
“I’m not just thrown in the fire. I actually got my feet wet last year, so I’m ready to go now.”
It was at rookie camp a year ago that Lewis suffered a hamstring injury that prevented him from participating in the team’s spring practices or mandatory June minicamp. That’s valuable practice time for a player coming out of the Southland Conference.
Those lack of practice reps were evident early in training camp. Lewis looked over his head.
“Training camp was my first time going against an NFL defensive back,” Lewis said. “It was just ‘get out there and do it.’ But I don’t want to use that as an excuse. It was a learning experience.”
By the end of training camp, Lewis had started to figure things out. He made six catches for 81 yards in the Bills’ preseason finale against Detroit – convincing the front office he was worth a spot on the practice squad.
“I’ve got to tip my hat to my coaches and wide receiver group,” he said. “They really helped me along the way and kept me motivated. I’m blessed that Rex and” General Manager Doug “Whaley chose to keep me around.”
The jump for an NFL player from their first to second year in the league can often times be significant, which is what both Lewis and the Bills are hoping for.
“Here’s the thing where you see a guy develop in one year. He’s really going like this,” Ryan said, angling his arm toward the ceiling.
Once training camp arrives, the competition for jobs at receiver will really start to take shape. Lewis is part of a group that also includes the following: Greg Salas, Walter Powell, Greg Little, Kolby Listenbee, Leonard Hankerson, Marquise Goodwin, Marcus Easley, Gary Chambers, Jarrett Boykin and Davonte Allen.
Included in that group is just about every possible type of NFL receiver. Some have speed. Some have height. Some excel on special teams. It’s not exactly clear just yet which category Lewis falls into. At 6-foot-4, he’s the tallest receiver on the roster, but height alone won’t earn him a spot.
“I’ve learned in this NFL that nobody’s job is promised,” he said. “You’ve got to come out, work hard every day and whoever the coaches decide they want to start, then that’s that.
“I’ve just got to make plays when my number is called. Make the tough catch, make the contested catch – that’s what they look for in me. I’ve just got to step up and be a man about it. My opportunity is here now, so I’ve got to make the most of it.”