Much of the Buffalo Bills’ youth movement in recent weeks has been focused on the offense.
Rookie guard Wyatt Teller and wide receivers Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie have been key contributors as the Bills have started to light up the scoreboard. In order to add Foster to the 53-man roster, however, the team made a move to get younger on the defensive side of the ball, too.
Veteran linebacker Ramon Humber, a key contributor on special teams, was released the day before the game against the New York Jets in Week 10. The Bills had a replacement lined up for Humber in rookie linebacker Corey Thompson, who was promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad Nov. 19.
“Oh, man, it was special,” Thompson said of getting news of his promotion. “It felt great because I've been working all season on scout team. I've been working while I wait — that's a phrase that coach (Sean) McDermott uses — so I studied over the bye week and they gave me the call. Now it's just about going out there and making sure I'm ready to play.”
Thompson did that in Sunday’s 24-21 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, playing 13 snaps on special teams.
“He’s earned the right to be brought up,” McDermott said last week. “He’s worked hard. He’s shown that he’s with the game plan every week, even though he was on the practice squad. It’s important that these young men work while they wait, and I thought he did that.”
Thompson’s promotion is the latest step in a career defined by perseverance. He spent six years at LSU, redshirting three times — as a true freshman in 2012 while recovering from shoulder injuries suffered in high school, in 2014 because of a torn ACL suffered the previous year and in 2016 after breaking his leg in training camp. He’s gone through five surgeries, three of which came in college, and shifted from safety to outside linebacker after the 2015 season.
“He's like one of my uncles, you know what I'm saying? Because he was at LSU before I got there, and when I graduated he was still there,” Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “Great guy, great teammate while I was there. Always positive through all his injuries. He always just stood tall and through adversity kept going. Last year he had a great year as an outside linebacker. He was always a great athlete, a great player. He just had to find a home, and last year he did.”
White recalled a game the Tigers played against a Texas A&M squad that was led by quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2013, his true freshman season. Thompson was starting with him in the secondary.
“He tore his ACL and didn't know it,” White said of Thompson. “So he stayed out there for three or four more plays, but his knee kept giving out. So he played almost a full series with a torn ACL. That just shows the the type of person he is. I'm definitely happy with him moving up and getting an opportunity.”
Did Thompson ever doubt this moment would come?
“Of course. I had many doubts, but my mindset was stronger than that,” he said. “Keep grinding. You get hurt? Oh well. Shoot, go fix it and get back out there. … It’s something I learned when I was kid. Just never quit. Something in me just told me to keep pushing. I had the right people in my ear, so I just kept going, and now I'm finally here. I’m 100 percent now, and that’s all that matters.”
Thompson made his only pre-draft visit to the Bills — “he came up with his preacher man outfit on — a full three-piece suit,” White recalled with a laugh – after a senior season in which he made 43 tackles and six sacks.
“Realistically I knew I would be late round to a free agent, so no surprises there,” Thompson said.
The one thing that did catch him off guard?
“It was April and it was snowing,” he said. “I'm coming from Houston, where it's hot. That was a preview of what's getting ready to come in the next couple weeks, I guess.”
Thompson made good use of his extended time at LSU, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sports administration and starting his work on earning a master’s degree in liberal arts.
“Once he got here, he was prepared,” White said. “He just had to get familiar with the scheme. That guy is versatile. He's got feet like a safety and he's built like a linebacker.”
At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, Thompson is physically similar to a player McDermott is familiar with from his time in Carolina, Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, a 6-foot-0, 230-pounder.
“I played safety my first four years of college,” Corey Thompson said. “I keep that in my back pocket. I can move around. I can run.”
That’s something the Bills clearly value in their linebackers.
“All of us bring it. We're all fast,” Thompson said. “We all like to get to the ball.”