Being overlooked has become old hat for Tommy Sweeney.
The Buffalo Bills’ rookie tight end had just one Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer coming out of high school in New Jersey. Despite developing into a first-team, All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection as a redshirt senior, Sweeney lasted until the seventh round of the NFL Draft.
“It definitely puts a chip on your shoulder — under recruited, people don't think you're capable,” Sweeney said. “When I was drafted, similar deal. I think I know what I'm capable of, but it's good to add a little fuel to the fire in that sense.”
The one man who saw something in Sweeney before anyone else was his position coach at Boston College. Frank Leonard is entering his 36th season as a coach. Included among his various stops are a three-year stint as a scout for the New England Patriots (2004-06) and three years spent as the St. Louis Rams’ tight ends coach (2009-11).
“I've coached tight ends in the NFL," Leonard said. "Without sounding arrogant, I have a pretty fair idea of who can play and who can't play. There's no question Tommy was certainly misevaluated coming out of high school, and certainly misevaluated coming out of college.”
Leonard was first introduced to Sweeney at a 7-on-7 camp during his junior year of high school. He blossomed as a senior at Don Bosco Prep, making 27 catches for 539 yards and five touchdowns to be named first-team all-league and all-state honorable mention.
After his first scrimmage as a true freshman, Leonard told Sweeney’s mother, Annette, that her son was one day going to be a professional football player. Despite that lofty projection, it didn’t always look like that. Sweeney redshirted as a true freshman and played sparingly the next year, making five catches for 68 yards in 12 games.
He became a full-time starter as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, finishing with 26 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns.
Throughout a coaching career that has spanned nearly four decades, Leonard had never before had a player for five years the way he did with Sweeney — even longer if you count the time spent recruiting him.
There’s perhaps no one, then, who better understands how Sweeney has gone from being a seventh-round draft pick to looking good to make the Bills’ 53-man roster later this week.
“Tommy’s just a man's man,” Leonard said. “What I enjoyed so much about ‘T’ was (he was) very, very bright, very, very tough without walking around the hallways as a tough guy.”
As a junior, Sweeney put up his best college stats, finishing with 36 catches for 512 yards and four touchdowns. He had 32 catches for 348 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt senior in 2018, making the All-ACC first team — no small accomplishment in one of the best conferences in the country.
He slipped to the final round of the draft based mostly on his physical attributes. At 6-foot-5 and 251 pounds, Sweeney has adequate size, but his speed and strength numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine were just average. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.83 seconds and did the 225-pound bench press 17 times.
“I think he’s more athletic than people give him credit for at times,” Leonard said. “I'm sure you're seeing that up there a little bit. I'm not saying he's an Olympian, but the dude is a good athlete. Along with his intelligence and his toughness, his character, he has all those traits that you're looking for.”
Sweeney ended up playing 50 career games for BC. Factoring in his redshirt season, that’s a great deal of experience in a pro-style offense. Furthermore, Sweeney spent his BC career practicing against 10 defensive players who have been drafted in the past five years.
“The more you do it, the more you can learn,” Sweeney said. “Especially coming from a pro-style offense, obviously it's not professional, but it's pro style so you can learn a lot of building blocks. The (BC coaching staff) imparted on me so many different things, so that you can associate things.
“At BC my whole four years, we had incredible defensive players. … When you see them have success (in the NFL) and you know you've played well against them, that's kind of when you think, 'OK, I can really get it done.' ”
One of those defensive players is current Bills linebacker Matt Milano. They have forged a close friendship dating to their college days.
“He’s a BC guy. A lot of smart kids coming out of there,” Milano said. “He understands defenses, where to sit down and where to get open. It’s an instinctual thing that not a lot of people have.”
A player can have all the physical attributes in the world, but if the mental side is lacking, that player will be out of position and quickly lose the trust of the coaching staff. Talk to anyone who has been around Sweeney, and one word comes up repeatedly: Smart.
Leonard saw that at BC in his ability to decipher defenses and coverages. The Bills have seen it in how Sweeney has been able to take advantage of the increased reps he has received this summer because of injuries to Tyler Kroft, Dawson Knox and Jason Croom ahead of him on the depth chart.
“He hasn’t blinked. We’ve thrown him in there with the ‘ones’ and ‘twos,’ and when we first started he was with the ‘threes,’ ” Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “He was well coached at Boston College, and he understands football. When you have a guy who is tough, smart, and that can operate quickly that wants to get better, that’s a good young player to work with. … When you ask him to do something, you don’t have to teach him four or five times. He usually gets it on the first time. Does he run lightning speed or anything like that? No. He’s made the most of his opportunities, and so far he’s been a good addition.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday the team has not decided yet whether Kroft will start the season on the Bills’ 53-man roster or the physically-unable-to-perform list, which would keep him out for at least six weeks. Given that the standout free-agent addition has not been able to practice at all during the spring or summer, the PUP list looks increasingly likely.
Veteran Lee Smith and third-round draft pick Dawson Knox look like roster locks, and Sweeney has the clear inside track for the third job based on his usage this summer.
“He’s one of those rookie guys who maybe not a lot of people knew before our first couple of games,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “He’s a smart kid. He does his job, is very physical at the point of attack as well. You love to see a kid like that make some plays for us. Just how hard he’s been working, he’s a special talent. He’s opened my eyes to what he can do.”
Sweeney graduated in May 2018 with a degree in marketing and took graduate classes in sports administration last year.
“There's two types of smart people," Leonard said. "There are those who want everybody to know they're smart, and then there are smart people who keep it on the down low and use it when they need it. Tommy, he has humility. That's the beauty of Tommy Sweeney.”
Sweeney talks to Leonard at least once a week, calling him “invaluable” to his transition to the NFL.
“He’s just a selfless guy who’s all about making everybody better,” Sweeney said of his college position coach. “He did that for me as a player and as a person. We have a special relationship.”
Sweeney has also been fortunate to join a locker room in Buffalo with a strong veteran presence in Smith, who is back with the Bills after four years with the Oakland Raiders. Smith has encouraged Sweeney to be a “gnat” following him around the practice field and meeting room, something the rookie has been happy to embrace.
“He's just a smart, motivated, driven young man,” Smith said of Sweeney. “He's not scared to ask questions, but the main thing I would say is that he's smart. He picks up on things. He's extremely motivated and driven. Is he going to drop balls? Yes. Is he going to miss blocks? Yes. Hell, we all do. Those guys get paid on the other side of us, too, but the one thing he doesn't do is divert from the consistent way he works and approaches each day. There's no one pulling for him more than me.”