Tyree Jackson isn’t the only former University at Buffalo football player looking to defy the odds and make the Buffalo Bills’ roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Cornerback Cam Lewis is attempting to do the same, even if his quest hasn’t gotten quite the same amount of publicity as the former Bulls quarterback.
Lewis, 22, overcame an injury-shortened junior season to lead UB with three interceptions and six passes defensed as a senior in 2018. He solidified himself as a team leader — coordinating study sessions with younger players to help them gain a better understanding of the playbook — and earned a spot on the All-Mid-American Conference second team.
The 5-foot-9, 183-pounder is competing at nickel cornerback during spring practices with the Bills.
“The thing that sticks out to me about Cam is everyone you talk to around their program at UB raved about who he is as a person, his smarts, his toughness,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “To add another local guy, I think, was a benefit to all of us.”
Lewis is close friends with Jackson, having grown up about two hours apart in Michigan. Lewis said they would frequently talk about the possibility of staying in town to play at the next level when UB would practice at the Bills’ fieldhouse.
“It's a great feeling, you know? It's like being back home,” Lewis said. “I've spent my last four years here, so to get the opportunity to play for the Buffalo Bills, I'm just blessed to be here. We would think about, 'What if we got the opportunity to stay here and play NFL ball?’ It happened for me and Tyree, so just thankful.”
Lewis’ best chance to make the active roster will likely come through special teams. Second-year cornerback Taron Johnson will enter training camp as the starter at nickel corner. The odds of making an NFL team’s 53-man roster are long, but Lewis and Jackson don’t have to look far for inspiration. Last year, both Levi Wallace and Robert Foster developed into key contributors. That’s a credit to the Bills’ scouting department under General Manager Brandon Beane.
It’s no coincidence the Bills brought in a pair of former Bulls as free agents. The teams have a good working relationship, with McDermott trusting the job Bulls coach Lance Leipold does with his team. That gives the Bills the ability to get the “inside scoop” on UB players, as McDermott called it.
“The more we dug into it, the more we liked what we saw,” McDermott said. “Then watching both young men at the pro day, how they handled themselves, that was another look for us at what they could do. Then after that, it’s what happens on the field and our scouts do a great job with that.”
Lewis was limited to just seven games in 2017 because of multiple injuries, but came back to play in 12 games last year, despite dealing with a high-ankle sprain. The Bulls’ season ended in disappointing loss in the MAC championship game and their bowl game, but the team managed to set a program record with 10 wins.
Despite UB's success, draft weekend was an utter disappointment. Lewis and Jackson were not picked. The same goes for wide receiver Anthony Johnson, center James O’Hagan and defensive end Chuck Harris. Those three also signed as undrafted free agents — Johnson with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, O’Hagan with the New York Giants and Harris with the Chicago Bears.
“They've got that chip on their shoulder for sure, and I do, too,” Lewis said. “We've been working at this for a long time. Everyone is going to take that work ethic with them wherever they landed in free agency.”
Lewis wasn’t sure what to expect on draft weekend, but was elated when McDermott called to offer him a spot. Since then, he’s worked to get the playbook down. The Bills’ defense is more complex than the one at UB, Lewis said.
“The NFL is a grind. It's different from college,” he said. “It's a lot of stuff you have to retain. So just getting better day by day and making the most of my opportunities.”