PITTSFORD – Most of Jordan Poyer’s teammates headed for shelter from the rain once the Buffalo Bills ended training camp practice early Tuesday.
But the fifth-year safety remained on the field at St. John Fisher College, back turned to an assistant firing passes, repeatedly spinning around to catch the slick ball. It was an opportunity to work on his hands, one Poyer wasn’t about to let slip through his fingers.
Poyer and Micah Hyde each snared five interceptions last season – their first in Buffalo after unceremonious exits from their former teams – tying for fifth in the NFL and third among safeties. The 10 combined picks were the most by any safety tandem in the league.
Neither player will commit to matching or exceeding that lofty interception total this season. They know turnover margins tend to fluctuate from year to year, and ample empirical data reveals that outliers, whether extremely high or low, are often followed by a return to the mean. But Poyer distills his and Hyde’s success to a simple equation.
“If you go back to last year’s film, the picks were just being in the right place at the right time – tips and overthrows, balls that are almost really just thrown right to you,” Poyer said. “When you’re in position, it’s just being able to make those plays. Him and I weren’t doing anything special out there, it was just playing within the scheme of the defense. Quarterbacks throw the ball 40 times a game, you’ve got 16 games, there’s going to be a couple times when the ball might just land in your lap.”
In other words, turnovers are a product of the duo’s ability to be in position to take advantage of opportunity, then capitalizing.
And for Poyer and Hyde, opportunities were in short supply before landing in Buffalo.
Hyde, a fifth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2013, enjoyed more playing time than Poyer. Hyde started 33 of 63 games for Green Bay, including 11 in 2016, the final year of his rookie contract. He managed eight interceptions, plus a pick in the playoffs, through his first four seasons in the league, while playing cornerback, safety and returning kicks and punts. But the Packers didn’t make an attempt to keep him, and he signed with the Bills on the first day of free agency.
Buffalo proved an ideal situation, the right place at the right time. And Hyde took advantage.
Hyde started all 16 games for the first time in his career. He tied for the team lead in interceptions – recording all of the picks in his first seven games – was second in pass breakups and fourth in total tackles. His dominant start aided a secondary that didn't allow a passing touchdown until the fourth quarter of Week 4. He helped the Bills snap an excruciating playoff drought. He was named to his first Pro Bowl, despite not being able to play because of injury. And he made the NFL's annual top 100 list for the first time in his career, checking in at No. 62, as voted by fellow players.
That’s a fine start, and a degree of vindication. But Hyde wants more. And he’s not alone.
“Everybody in the locker room and on this team has a chip on their shoulder,” Hyde said this week. “As far as the coaches, I feel like they’ve all been fired before. A lot of guys on this team have been cut. My situation, in the last organization I was with, they didn’t want me. They literally just said, ‘Go ahead and walk.’ And so a lot of guys on this team have the chip on their shoulder. And so I think that’s what’s kind of brought us together and brought that family mentality. A lot of guys understand this is a big opportunity for them, a bigger opportunity for us, and we’re trying to live off that.”
Poyer, a seventh-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, followed a similar path. He was cut early in his first season in Philadelphia and claimed off waivers by the Browns. He started 10 of 45 games for Cleveland, including the first six in 2016 before a lacerated kidney ended his season and tenure with the franchise.
Poyer signed with the Bills in free agency and produced an even better statistical season than Hyde, despite playing one fewer game. Poyer tied Hyde in interceptions and pass breakups and finished second on the team with 95 total tackles. His highlights included an interception in each of the final three regular season games, including a pick-six against New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, aiding the Bills' playoff push.
Despite their success, Poyer and Hyde acknowledged they still discuss their shared experience of being underappreciated and discarded by their former teams. They use it as fuel, and their connection, communication and supreme effort are apparent.
“Those guys are so internally driven that it’s fun to watch them almost compete with one another, yet form this bond, kind of this brotherly bond,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “I’ve been around some pretty good safety tandems, combinations in my past, and those are fun relationships to watch come together, when they really feed off of each other, not only from a communication standpoint, but it seems like one guy makes a play, a couple plays later the other one makes a play. They’re just really growing up before our eyes.”
Hyde expounded on his rapport with Poyer.
“We’re trying to build off what we did last year,” Hyde said. “It’s not really a competition between us. It's kind of to see how good our safety tandem can be against everybody else. It’s not necessarily me versus him. Because I love playing with Po, man. He’s one of the greatest teammates I ever had. And if he has 17 picks and I have one this year, I’ll be happy as long as we’re winning ballgames.”
Poyer ventured a guess as to what led former general manager Doug Whaley to sign both he and Hyde last offseason, when the Bills targeted a couple of castoffs who went on to thrive in McDermott’s zone coverage schemes, combining to form one of the top safety tandems in the NFL.
“We both study hard,” Poyer said, “and we’re probably not the biggest safeties in the game, but we understand where we’re supposed to be, when we’re supposed to be there.”
That’s a foundation for success.
And when granted an opportunity, they’re proving they have the tools to take advantage.