There is an undeniable stigma that comes with being known as a special-teams player in the NFL.
The insinuation is that a player who carries that label isn’t good enough to contribute offensively or defensively. The Buffalo Bills had someone last year who showed it’s possible to break out of that mold.
They just might have another one do it this year, too.
Linebacker Ramon Humber had 12 solo tackles in the Bills’ 21-12 victory over the New York Jets in Week One. That total ranks second in the NFL after Week One.
“He's going to continue to do that,” said fellow linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who showed last season that a player’s breakout season can come when it’s least expected. “There's certain guys that you know when you play with, you're like, 'he's probably just a teamer.' But then there's other guys like, 'this dude can ball no matter what.' He's one of those guys that we trust. We're not out there like, ‘oh, that's a weak link.’ That's Ramon. We know he's got it. He's going to lock it down.”
When Alexander signed with the Bills, the expectation was he’d be one of those “teamers.” But when an opportunity presented itself, he grabbed it and held on tight. His 12.5-sack season became one of the best stories in the NFL, and ended with him earning the AFC’s defensive MVP in the Pro Bowl. It also helped him land a new two-year contract with the Bills that could pay him up to $6 million.
“Most of this league started as special-teams players,” Alexander said. “Special teams is a way for guys to still make an impact on the game and develop into a better positional player or buy time until somebody gets hurt or they make a change up top as far as personnel.”
That’s exactly what the Bills went through, as coach Sean McDermott took over for the fired Rex Ryan. If there was trepidation among the Bills’ fan base about Humber holding a starting job for the first time in his career, it wasn’t shared by the team’s coaching staff. Humber, who is playing on a one-year contract for a shade under $1 million, has been a starter since the spring in McDermott’s base 4-3 scheme.
“That’s part of who we are. We’re going to put our players in a position to be successful, play to their strengths, and develop our players at the same time,” McDermott said. “Love when you see a guy with Ramon’s history come out, at an opener in particular, and have the game that he had. That was fun to watch.”
Humber is far from a newbie. The 30-year-old is in his ninth NFL season, but he has just 20 starts in that time.
“He's old in this league now. People think that he's younger than what he is,” Alexander said. “He's learned a lot of football. He's been around a lot of great players, a lot of great teams, and he's always been productive when he's gotten his opportunity. It's never just come in bulk.
“Just like me last year, you go from taking maybe 10, 15 snaps or maybe 100 snaps in an entire year, to now he's getting 50 snaps in a game. He can play, so his production is going to naturally go up. It's no surprise to us.”
Adding in a pair of assists, Humber finished with a team-high 14 tackles. He also had an interception on the Jets' two-point conversion attempt in the second half, keeping the Bills in the lead. He consistently flew to the ball and finished the play when he got there. Asked to assess his performance, though, and he didn’t view it nearly as favorably.
“I'm my biggest critic,” he said. “People might say I had a good game, but I still feel like I had a subpar game. As a player, just in general, that's what's got to drive you.”
Humber cited poor alignment on a couple plays as evidence.
“I felt like if I would have lined up a different way, I probably could have made a play, so those things stick in your head,” he said. “Those are things you want to correct and not make the same mistake.”
Nobody would blame Humber if he smiled and said “hi, haters” to the many who doubted him going into the regular season, but that’s not in his makeup.
“As a player, your mindset is always try to be a starter,” he said. “You've got to go in each week thinking you're going to be a starter, because you're one play away from being out there on the field. ... Me being a veteran, I know what's at stake. I've been around the league long enough to know the ins and outs. I just do my part and do my job.”
Humber took all but one defensive snap, showing that the coaching staff trusts him in all situations.
“Experience helps a lot, especially understanding what offenses are trying to do,” he said. “As a rookie I didn't know too much. I was just out there playing. Now you see how teams want to attack you. Once you understand your system, you can see the weak points and how offenses are going to attack those. That's when you can become a better player when you're able to disguise it.”
Humber was at the center of what was a good tackling performance in Week One. The Bills were charged with just five missed tackles, according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus. While it sounds simple, stressing fundamentals has been big for McDermott and his staff.
“Especially early in the season, because you don't get to practice too much the fundamentals, – tackling, block shedding – I think a lot of games are won or lost through special teams and fundamentals through the first couple weeks,” Humber said. “We really take pride in sticking to the fundamentals and just doing the simple things. Offenses are trying to get a guy out in space and when you're able to shut it down by just making an open-field tackle, that’s big.”