PITTSFORD — Thursday's preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers is no ordinary exhibition for Buffalo Bills backup safety Dean Marlowe.
It will be the first time he has played an actual game in two years.
"I'm extremely juiced," Marlowe said after Tuesday's practice at St. John Fisher College. "I'm healthy and I've got to take advantage of every opportunity I have."
Marlowe has a great chance to make the 53-man roster as the Bills' fourth safety. He has worked all spring and training camp with the second team, next to veteran safety acquisition Rafael Bush. He's holding down a spot on the starting coverage units on special teams.
If Marlowe can make the roster, it will be a major career comeback.
Marlowe made the Carolina Panthers' roster as an undrafted rookie in 2015. But he tore his right hamstring after just one game in 2016.
He recovered in time for 2017 training camp and was viewed as the likely No. 3 safety for the Panthers. Then he tore his left hamstring just before last year's preseason opener.
"It was the same exact injury," Marlowe said. "I was in a dark place, I can't lie. I was mentally down. I was like this can't be happening again. But I had great support around me, great people around me. I was uplifted 24/7. I had to dig deep and remind myself this is not my last rodeo. I'm stronger than this mentally. I'll get through this."
Fortunately for Marlowe, he had a fan in Bills coach Sean McDermott, who had scouted him for the Panthers coming out of James Madison in 2015.
The Bills added Marlowe to the practice squad in late December, then signed him to a contract for 2018 in January.
"McDermott has always been a fan of me, and I've always been a fan of him," Marlowe said. "I spoke to him draft day. We've always had a great relationship. It was good to come here and get introduced to this culture. I feel home. I felt everything was coming together when I got here."
Marlowe looks the part of an NFL safety. He has good size, at 6-foot-1 1/2, 208 pounds. He has long arms. His 40-yard dash time was a respectable 4.58 seconds. His 20-yard shuttle time of 4.18 seconds was above average. Like starters Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, Marlowe has been used in practice both on the back line and up closer to the line of scrimmage. He can play either safety spot.
"I've always been able to run," Marlowe said. "I like to play physical. I can tackle. I've always had that in my game. There's no substitute for toughness. I feel I can do everything."
Marlowe made his best play of camp this week when he undercut a route by Brandon Reilly and made a pretty pickoff of a pass by Nathan Peterman.
"You saw him the other day he had a really nice interception," McDermott said. "Fortunate to be in Carolina when we signed Dean. He played at James Madison, which is right down the road from my alma mater. Dean's a guy that he's seen the journey of life in the NFL."
"In his first year, he had success and was expecting in the next year or two to take the job in Carolina," McDermott said. "He never quite got to that. ... Now he's basically reinvented himself since coming to Buffalo. The resources we have with our medical staff, our strength and conditioning staff – he really bought into that and staying healthy and available has been key for him. You see the results of his hard work the other day with that tremendous interception."
While sitting out was bad for his career, Marlowe said he has benefited from watching quality veterans – Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper and Peanut Tillman in Carolina and Hyde and Poyer in Buffalo.
"Kurt says you wear the last name on the back of your jersey, but for the most part you represent the logo that's on your helmet," Marlowe said. "You never want to let yourself down and you never want to let others who are important to you down – you don't want to let things that are bigger than you down. That's one thing I took from those guys."
He also says he's in better shape than ever.
"I feel like the strength staff here does an amazing job at focusing on our overall health and all the little things," Marlowe said. "There's a lot little things I never focused on before, a lot of posterior chain work with glutes and hips. Not just hamstring work but quads and calf work and your feet. It's little things in training that all come together."
Now all Marlowe has to do is perform in games.
"Now that I've come out of it, I'm thankful," Marlowe said. "Every single day I come out on this field, I'm thinking to myself, ‘What can you take from this day because you never thought this could happen two years in a row.' I hold myself to a high level of gratitude."