There is no prototype for what makes an NFL player.
They can be built like a bodybuilder or a sumo wrestler. They can run like Usain Bolt or a Molina brother. A lineman isn’t going to be able to run a 4.4 40, the same way a cornerback can’t mix it up with the behemoths along the line of scrimmage.
But what would it look like if a player could truly do it all? If you could go into a lab and create the perfect football cyborg, there are certain traits it would have to possess.
Start with vision, speed, strength, stamina and elusiveness. Factor in things that can’t be tested, like work ethic, toughness and leadership. Sprinkle in a little gamesmanship with the ability to get under an opponent’s skin.
The Buffalo News set out to identify which members of this year’s Bills team have the best of those traits. Over the past month, 25 veteran members of the team were polled. Here are their selections:
1. Best football IQ – DT Kyle Williams.
The 11th-year veteran has played for five head coaches and six defensive coordinators since coming to Buffalo. That’s a lot of coaching points to take in, as well as a lot of football terminology to digest.
“You try to pick to pick up everything that you can,” Williams said, “from alignments and formations and all those different types of things.”
The seemingly small details, like an opponent’s stance or hand position, can be useful information.
“Typically, I’ll watch everybody on the line and figure out what they may or may not be doing, if they have something that can tell us something in certain situations, and then if I have a pattern that I can find on somebody, I’ll use it in games,” Williams said. “Oh, ‘OK, if he does this, it means run, if he does this it means pass.’ Then I can go into formation, if he’s showing run, this is the formation, these are the runs they like out of that formation.
“You have to be able to look at it and process stuff very quickly. I can look at it, process it quickly, see the formation, then help my teammates by communicating, ‘Hey, this is what we’re looking for, what we’re doing.’ ”
Williams has had that type of attention to detail throughout his career, and it’s been refined by thousands of hours of film study.
“With more reps of watching it and picking up small, nuanced things, it’s gotten better and better over the years,” he said. “I’ve had to watch and go against different positions and different guys and players. Somebody playing in the middle, he may only watch a guard or a center, where a lot of times I’ve gotten in the habit of watching all five linemen, and even tight ends when they come down in the formation. It’s helped me, for sure.”
Others receiving votes: Corey Graham, Tyrod Taylor, Eric Wood, Lorenzo Alexander.
2. Best vision – RB LeSean McCoy.
Anyone who has watched McCoy make a jump cut into a hole he was the only one to see this season shouldn’t be surprised by this result.
“I just see color,” McCoy explained. “I don’t really see a person. I just try to adjust on the color. I’m not the biggest and I’m not the fastest. I’m quick, but with my vision, sometimes I see things before they happen and am able to react to it. It’s probably my best trait, I think. … It’s one of those things you have or you don’t. It’s a true blessing.”
Others receiving votes: Preston Brown, Brandon Tate.
3. Best hands – WR Sammy Watkins.
On 96 targets last season, Watkins had three drops.
“Honestly, I think it’s a mentality with catching the ball – being aggressive to the ball in certain situations, and having unbelievable faith that I can catch any ball, I don’t care where it’s at,” he said.
It’s also repetition. He’ll sometimes catch 100 balls with receivers coach Sanjay Lal before practice.
“We just go until he says stop,” Watkins said. “It’s repetition, of doing those certain catches."
It’s more than just standing in front of a machine catching passes, too. Watkins will do drills like sitting on the ground and having a person behind him throw passes over his head that he has to catch.
“I try to make it hard,” he said. “I can easily turn around and catch a ball like this, but to catch it like that, you might be in one of those situations. It might not be in that game, but later in that season, you might need that exact catch.”
Others receiving votes: Robert Woods, Nick O’Leary.
4. Fastest – WR Marquise Goodwin.
Not surprisingly, the former Olympian got every vote among his teammates. Goodwin ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2013, just three-hundredths of a second off the record held by Chris Johnson. Although he’s dealt with assorted injuries throughout his NFL career, that speed is still evident, as shown by two touchdowns this season of 65-plus yards.
“I do a lot of explosive lifting in the offseason, for sure. Even in season, every Monday I come in, I squat heavy and stay on my Olympic lifts,” he said. “Really, a lot of it is predicated off of technique. If you don’t have the proper running form and proper technique. Then there’s no way you’ll reach your maximum velocity.”
In the offseason, Goodwin has a team he trains with, including University of Kentucky track and field coach Edrick Floreal. Workouts focus on maintaining the proper position, Goodwin said.
“Putting your feet in the right position so you don’t hurt your hamstring, and maximize the use of your glutes, which are the strongest muscles in your lower body,” he said. “Speed is my deal, so I have to make sure I fine-tune it and see where I can get better all the time.”
Others receiving votes: None.
5. Most elusive: RB LeSean McCoy.
Quick, think of the last time McCoy took a really big hit. You can’t come up with one, can you? Neither can he.
“I don’t really take hits like that,” he said. “Nobody wants to get blown up, and I can probably name on one hand how many times I’ve been hit hard.”
Not surprisingly, vision and elusiveness go hand in hand. If you can see the hit coming, of course you’re going to get out of the way.
“It’s hard to explain. It’s about reaction,” he said. “I see a guy coming, I step back or go lower than him. I’ve read a lot of quotes and seen different articles from guys like Barry Sanders and some of the things they say, I understand what they’re saying, where other people can’t. I can just feel a guy coming, is the best way I can describe it.”
Others receiving votes: None.
6. Toughest – OLB Lorenzo Alexander.
This season alone, he’s played through hamstring and ankle injuries to be a standout on both special teams and defense. In his career, he’s rebounded from a Lisfranc (mid-foot) injury that ended his 2013 season after just three games.
“Laying down for your teammates, playing through injuries, they see that sacrifice and respect it,” Alexander said. “A lot of that comes from growing up with old-school coaches. My uncle, Steve Moore, coached me all the way from Pop Warner to high school, and he was probably the hardest coach I ever had. He instilled that throwback, hardcore mentality at a young age, and I carried it on.”
Others receiving votes: Kyle Williams, Zach Brown, Eric Wood, Richie Incognito, Preston Brown, Cordy Glenn, Robert Woods, Corbin Bryant, Tyrod Taylor.
7. Best conditioned – S Corey Graham.
Assuming he finishes the final five games of this season, Graham will have played in all 16 games for the ninth year in a row. At 31 years old, he’s taken 821 total snaps, which is just 13 fewer than the team-leading 834 of linebacker Preston Brown.
“I do a very good job taking care of myself, taking care of my body. I always have,” Graham said. “I was fortunate when I was young to have guys like Brian Urlacher that kind of took me under his wing and showed me how to prepare.”
That includes regular cardio sessions, as well as massages, chiropractor appointments and sessions in the cold tub.
“Obviously I’m getting older in age, so I’ve got to work even harder, but I feel like I’m in good condition,” he said. “The secondary is a lot of running. You’ve got to be in great shape. I pride myself on being prepared.
“My theory is, if you never get out of shape, then you don’t have to get in shape. Even the offseason, I do a lot of stuff. I never go more than two weeks – that’s the most I’d ever take off – and even then I’m still going to do some stuff. I won’t just sit on the couch. It’s got me where I am now, so I’ll always do that.”
Others receiving votes: Percy Harvin, Preston Brown, Tyrod Taylor, Jerry Hughes, Robert Woods, Lorenzo Alexander.
8. Most calm under pressure – QB Tyrod Taylor.
Yes, it comes with the position, but anyone who’s ever watched Taylor conduct an interview knows it’s also his nature.
“That’s just me. Some guys are different, but that’s me on and off the field,” he said of his calm nature. “Guys look for leadership in tough situations. The more calm you are, the more you show confidence, it’s easier to help rally your team.”
Taylor said his ability to not let his emotions get the best of him is “definitely something that comes with the position, but it also comes from confidence in yourself and confidence in guys around you. Just preparing yourself for any moment on the field. The more calm you are under pressure, the more relaxed it allows you to play. There are going to be highs and lows in a game that’s 60 minutes. Those 60 minutes can go a bunch of different ways, so you have to remain the same person. Staying level just helps me perform better.”
Others receiving votes: Stephon Gilmore.
9. Strongest – G Richie Incognito.
There’s a good reason why his teammates were unanimous in picking Incognito as the strongest player on the team. He has a personal record of 500 pounds on the bench press and can do a set of eight at 405 pounds.
“I’ve always prided myself on being the strongest,” Incognito said. “I work extremely hard in season, out of season, all year long. My entire life is training to play football, and I take it very serious. I’ve got a whole team in Arizona that helps me prepare, and when I get back here, you’re seeing that plan set in motion.”
During the season, Incognito said he’s “kind of limited in what I can do. It’s more maintaining what I’ve built in the offseason.”
During that time, “it’s a completely different animal. I can do a lot more dynamic stuff. I can do a lot more plyometrics and mix up different workouts and things like that. During the offseason I have the capability of training at different loads, at different speeds.
“I have a plan for everything that I do. It’s not just up to chance. Nutritionists, athletic trainers, physical therapists. We all come together to make this plan.”
During the season, Incognito says he consumes 3,400 calories on a daily basis. In the offseason, it’s anywhere from 2,400 to 2,700.
“Everything I eat, every calorie, every supplement is accounted for every single day,” he said. “It’s evolved. Strength training used to be ‘We’re going to bench a lot, squat a lot.’ That’s great and there’s a component of that, but for me it’s being able to build speed and power through different phases. “
A Pro Bowl season last year has been backed up by another solid campaign at the age of 33, evidence that the plan is working.
“I’ve just continued to get stronger,” he said. “I push myself every offseason to lift more weight. I’m still hitting PRs and setting records for myself. That’s what drives me. You can see the results on the football field. I can go out and manhandle people week in and week out. I’m available to play every single week and that’s a testament to the hard work I put in.”
Others receiving votes: None.
10. Most competitive – WR Robert Woods.
Just watch him block during a running play – or jaw with a cornerback – to see why teammates chose Woods.
“I just have this feeling that I can do my job against anybody, no matter if it’s the best cornerback in the league,” he said. “Just going out there, competing to the whistle. I try to do my job on every play, whether it’s to spring guys free, or be open for Tyrod – always being available for a big play.”
Ask any member of the coaching staff, and they would say Woods’ blocking is a big part of why the Bills have the No. 1 rushing attack in the league.
“You see a lot of receivers on film, they don’t take pride in it,” he said. “I definitely do.”
Others receiving votes: Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Ronald Darby, Lorenzo Alexander, Percy Harvin, Eric Wood.
11. Best leader – C Eric Wood.
Here’s a good sign of how well thought of Wood is inside the Bills’ locker room. The majority of players polled were asked after he was hurt against the Seahawks. When a player is hurt in the NFL, especially when he goes on injured reserve, he’s out of sight, out of mind. But that’s not the case with Wood.
There’s a reason why LeSean McCoy said he would be the toughest player for the Bills to replace, and it’s not just because of his performance on the field.
“That’s an unbelievable honor, to have them say that,” Wood said. “It’s one thing to have people from the outside say something about you, but any time your teammates say something like that about you, it’s incredible.
“It’s something I try to take pride in. I come to work each day and approach it with a lot of effort and try to get guys going. But it’s awesome to hear that. I think it’s natural, but it’s also a conscious effort on my part. If you’re going to position yourself as a leader, you can’t come in and have a bad day, because then people follow that. At least for the past four or five years, I’ve approached it like, ‘Well if I’m dragging, I’m going to drag others down with me.’ That motivates you."
Others receiving votes: Kyle Williams, Tyrod Taylor, Corey Graham.
12. Hardest worker – QB Tyrod Taylor.
The quarterback is in many ways the face of a franchise, so it’s a positive that Taylor sets an example for his teammates.
“I’ve always been that way,” he said. “I mean, it’s definitely not a front. I’ve been around some veteran guys and have seen what it takes in this league to get to the point that I want to get to. … For sure, guys look to the quarterback position for leadership, for confidence in certain situations, and I have to be prepared for that moment. Hard work goes without saying.”
Others receiving votes: Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander.
13. Best trash talker – LeSean McCoy.
Here was McCoy’s first reaction to finding out his teammates picked him: “No, they said me? Seriously?”
When told it was indeed true, and that he had narrowly beaten out Jerry Hughes," McCoy added, “Oh, he’s bad.”
“You sure it was me?” he continued. “I gotta work on that. I hate to lose man, sometimes too much.”
Maybe that competitiveness is misconstrued, he was told.
“I like to compete,” he said. “No matter where I go, as far as people or fans, I’m respected as a player. This is what we do. This is our livelihood. I’m a competitor and that’s one thing you can’t coach. It has nothing to do with talent, it’s how well you compete.”
Let’s here from one of McCoy’s teammates on the matter:
"Maybe not on the football field, but everywhere else, he definitely talks the most (expletive) to everybody,” fullback Jerome Felton said.
There you have it.
Others receiving votes: Hughes, Robert Woods, Robert Blanton, Richie Incognito, Brandon Spikes.