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Last Bill to make camp roster, DT John Hughes hopes to keep beating NFL odds

PITTSFORD — The last man to make it onto the Buffalo Bills roster to start training camp is used to beating the odds in the NFL.

Defensive tackle John Hughes is a six-year NFL veteran who was sitting in his Cleveland-area home Wednesday waiting, hoping for a call as training camps around the league were about to open.

Then the phone rang.

"On Wednesday I found out in I was supposed to be on a plane here in three hours," Hughes said. "The plane ended up being cancelled. I wound up driving from Cleveland to here, which worked out, because my truck's here now."

Hughes signed on Thursday, just before the first practice at St. John Fisher College.

The 6-foot-3, 305-pounder is a longer shot among the 90 men trying to make it onto the 53-man squad for the regular season. Hughes will try to win one of the two or maybe three backup defensive tackle spots. Rookie third-round draft pick Harrison Phillips is a lock as one backup. Third-year man Adolphus Washington is the strong favorite to be No. 4 among defensive tackles. On occasion, teams keep a fifth defensive tackle.

But Hughes, who played well as a backup for the New Orleans Saints last season, is a survivor.

He was drafted in the third round in 2012 by the Cleveland Browns, an organization that knows revolving doors better than any other in the NFL.

"I laugh," Hughes said. "I survived four coaching staffs. Not a lot of people can say that."

"I got there in 2012, and I had Pat Shurmur my first year," Hughes said, referring to the Browns' ex-head coach. "I had Rob Chudzinski my second year. I had Mike Pettine my third and fourth, and then I started with Hue Jackson."

Hughes played well enough as a rotational run-plugger in a 3-4 front in 2014 to earn a four-year contract extension worth $14.4 million. But he only saw a little over a year of that contract.

Pettine was fired after the 2015 season, Jackson took over, and Hughes was released just a week into the 2016 season.

"At the end of the day, I think they were going for a younger group, and I guess I wasn't fitting the plans," Hughes said. "But there's no hard feelings in all of it."

If Pettine had survived, might Hughes would have seen more of that contract? Maybe. But a lot of players get swept out the door when a regime changes, as Bills fans know as well.

"Right after that stuff happens you kind of dwell on it," Hughes said. "What could have or should have happened? But you can't control how this game goes. You have to be able to move forward and start the next chapter. I ended up going to Tampa and playing the rest of the year."

Hughes gives the Bills more depth, for the preseason at least, at the run-stuffing 1-technique position.

Big Star Lotulelei is the starter, but the Bills don't want to overwork him before the regular-season opener. Hughes has to hope he plays well enough to convince the team to keep a fifth DT or that Washington underperforms as the primary backup to Kyle Williams. Bills assistant Bobby Babich was on the Browns' coaching staff in 2013-15, so head coach Sean McDermott had a good read on Hughes.

"The important thing with John is the NFL experience," said Bills coach Sean McDermott. "The D-tackle position alone is a very unselfish position. The people that we have around our organization that have been around John know that that's really what he's all about in terms of freeing other people up to make plays. Also, if you go back and study the NFL and training camp in particular, you need depth on both lines. In particular, the interior part of the line because of the way training camp goes and the bumps and bruises that happen inside on the interior line."

The average NFL career is 3.3 years. Hughes has logged six. He's in a better position to keep it going than he was a week ago.

"You sit home and you feel like you're supposed to be somewhere," Hughes said. "Honestly, it's crazy because people see the glitz and glamour parts of football. But they don't see the guys working their butts off to get to this point, waiting to get that tryout."

Hughes played about 20 snaps a game for the Saints over an eight-game stretch the second half of the season before going down with a torn biceps muscle. He's fully healthy now.

"I've been playing this game since I was a kid," Hughes said. "I've been blessed and lucky enough to make a lot of money doing something I love. Being able to come out here and do it, I give everything I've got. At the end of the day I know they could have a rookie or whoever doing the job. People give their left leg to play this game. I'm grateful for that opportunity to come back out here on the football field."

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