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Ramon Humber looks to make most of starting opportunity with Bills

PITTSFORD -- It isn't as if Ramon Humber has never started an NFL game. He has, in fact, done so 19 times in the past eight seasons.

But his career has mostly been defined by exceptional play on special teams rather than his skills as a linebacker.

That was why the Buffalo Bills signed Humber as a free agent last year. He did make one start at linebacker, against the Miami Dolphins in the next-to-last game of the season, but the brunt of his time in 16 games was spent covering kickoff and punt returns and trying to block field goals.

Not anymore.

Humber began training camp last week as the Bills' starting weak-side linebacker, and appears destined to keep the job for the foreseeable future.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has a deep appreciation for what the 5-foot-11, 232-pound Humber brings to the table, dating back to when Frazier was head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 2011 to 2013. During that time, Humber was with the New Orleans Saints, and when the linebacker was about to become a free agent, Frazier expressed interest in signing the Minnesota native.

Humber wound up remaining with the Saints, but Frazier never forgot the qualities he liked about him, which was a big reason why Humber not only stayed put after the Bills fired most of the coaches and player-personnel people who brought him in last year but gave him a promotion.

"Ramon is a very smart football player," Frazier said. "He has good athleticism, has some leadership qualities as well, but just watch his movement. He does a very good job of being at the right place at the right time. He’s displayed that for us, and is a guy who is opportunistic. He’ll make plays when he has opportunities to make those plays."

"That connection was always there," Humber said. "So the fact that he knew about me back then and he wanted to bring me in, it's just a good connection."

Humber isn't all giddy about opening camp as a first-team player. He has been around the NFL too long -- first with the Indianapolis Colts (with whom he signed in 2009 as an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State), then with the Saints (2010-2015), and the 2016 offseason and preseason with the New England Patriots -- to assume the status is permanent.

After all, Humber is still part of the special-teams units. Less than two weeks from his 30th birthday, he looks at his current role as merely a continuation of what he has done his entire football life -- being ready to play in any situation, under any circumstances.

"Being a seasoned vet, you're always preparing like you're going to be a starter," he said. "You're only one play away from one guy going down, so it doesn't matter. You've got to prepare, each and every single game and every single week, that you're going to be the starter."

Last December, it was injuries that caused the Bills to make Humber a starter against the Dolphins. Now, they're leaning on his considerable experience, because, frankly, they don't have much of it at linebacker. Lorenzo Alexander, an 11th-year pro, is starting on the strong side. As with Humber, the Bills signed Alexander last year to mainly contribute on special teams, but he ended up becoming a starter after first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson underwent surgery.

The Bills also promoted Humber as much by default as anything else. Gerald Hodges, another veteran, could give him a push, but at the moment is serving as an outside-inside utility player. Rookie Matt Milano is another possibility, but so far appears to be too raw to handle starting duties.

"Each player coming in wants to be a starter, so when you're getting that opportunity, you want to seize it," Humber said. "And that's all I'm doing right now. I'm taking advantage of the opportunity I'm getting and just having fun with my teammates and the coaching staff."

"We’re seeing how it goes," Frazier said. "We’re only in practice in training camp right now. We’ve got to get him in some game situations as a starter. He hasn’t been a big-time starter throughout his career, but he’s done some good things up to this point."

One of the best things Humber and Alexander do is dispense as much wisdom as they can to their younger teammates. They embrace the leadership that coach Sean McDermott and Frazier expect them to provide.

The message Humber and Alexander constantly deliver: Be accountable and reliable.

"You definitely got to coach the young guys up," Humber said. "You're only as strong as your weakest link and if you can't help them bring along, then what good are they? And what good are you to the team if you can't help teach other players and other people in your position just the ins and outs and just how to study and how to be a professional?

"That's the main thing for me and Zo and even (middle linebacker) Preston (Brown), as he's getting older, too, we try to instill in younger guys."

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