Trey Adams’ NFL career was not supposed to start like this.
Not all that long ago, big things were expected of the former Washington Huskies' offensive tackle. As in, not-just-being-drafted-in-the-first-round big. Maybe Adams would be a top-10 pick. Maybe even the first pick.
That never came to be. Back-to-back injuries robbed Adams of some athleticism, and thus that opportunity. His draft stock plummeted after an uninspiring effort at the NFL Scouting Combine. He became known more for an answer given during an interview session than anything he did on the field.
Adams, though, has persevered through a lot during his career, and has the chance to do so again. Shortly after 255 picks – including 20 on offensive tackles – came and went during April’s NFL Draft without his name being called, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills. Even if the path to get there was bumpy, Adams could make good on those lofty expectations.
“Whether you're a first rounder or undrafted, the biggest part is the opportunity,” he said. “I think if you don't look at it that way, you're just out for money or whatever else. But it's the opportunity, and I'll continue to say that for the rest of my life.”
Rewind to 2016, and NFL stardom seemed assured. An All-Pac-12 first-team selection as a sophomore, Adams was a 6-foot-8, 320-pound freak of an athlete who helped the Huskies reach the College Football Playoff. He entered the 2017 season as his conference’s top prospect, regardless of position.
A native of Wenatchee, Wash., a town of about 30,000 on the shores of the Columbia River, Adams was a high school star who didn’t have to think hard about staying in state for college. He committed to the Huskies as a sophomore and never wavered, even as the recruiting attention intensified. He stayed with the program through a coaching change from Steve Sarkisian to Chris Petersen.
Adams appeared in 10 of 13 games as a true freshman. Before that 2015 season, Petersen had never played a true freshman along the offensive line – not even as a backup.
Adams rewarded his coach’s faith in 2016, being named a second-team All-American and establishing himself as a bona fide NFL prospect. Adams and the Huskies cruised to a 6-0 start in 2017, reaching No. 5 in the polls. In the seventh game of his junior year, though, Adams suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during a loss to Arizona State.
It was the first of two devastating injuries. As the start of the 2018 season neared, Adams’ rehab from the ACL injury was on track, but something else was off. His back started bothering him, so much so that it hurt to even sit down. Surgery to repair two bulging discs was performed, meaning Adams missed the start of the season. He returned later that year to play four games after missing about 13 months and 16 consecutive games over two seasons.
“I could talk forever about it, but stuff happens for a reason,” he said of the injuries. “As a player and as a person, not to boast or anything, I think that says a lot about me and my love for football. I could have easily walked away and been happy with that, but … I did have a goal of playing in the NFL. It's been a long, tough journey.
“Everything I look at has a silver lining to it. I was able to step back from football and look at my life and be like, ‘You know, what is my life like without football? I was able to realize that I love football and I'm going to do everything I can to get back. I was able to get back for a fifth year. I had one of my best seasons. I was just excited for the opportunity to play football again and to get to the NFL.”
Adams, who was a part of two Pac-12 championship teams and got to play in a Rose Bowl, started every game in the regular season for Washington in 2019, but elected to sit out the Las Vegas Bowl to guard against another injury. He was given the Don James Perseverance Award at the Huskies’ postseason awards banquet in recognition of his return.
While Adams was again named a first-team All-Pac 12 selection and a fourth-team All-American, some suggested those honors were based more on reputation than performance. Scouting reports called into question his athleticism and durability following the injuries.
“I feel like I lost a little bit of something athletically, but where I lost that, I gained so much in the classroom,” Adams said. “I gained so much perspective and I gained so much in my thought process being away from football. Those things have really propelled my potential, I think, even more. People don't understand that football is so mental. I would say it's more mental than physical. The amount of information you're getting, the amount of stuff you have to remember, so I think where I maybe lost a step from being 18 or 19 with no injuries, I gained in my brain.”
Scott Huff, the offensive line coach at Washington, said Adams' game matured in 2019.
"He understands leverage," Huff said. "He's a good athlete, but he's a smart football player who plays the game with the right mindset, with trying to finish and playing physical."
Questions about his athleticism, however, only grew louder after Adams’ on-field performance at the combine. He lumbered through a 5.6-second 40-yard dash, put up a 24.5-inch vertical leap and a 7-foot-8 broad jump – all worst at the combine among all prospects. He weighed in at 318 pounds, a few pounds more than his listed weight during the season.
“On the field, I could have tested better, but at the end of the day, the combine … is more about the relationships and the impact you make on people,” he said. “I felt like all my interviews for the most part off the field went really well. I was happy about that. But the combine testing results, I could care less about that.”
One answer in particular left an impression, although perhaps not the type that Adams sought. In what was supposed to be a private interview with a combine staff member, Adams was asked if he could change anything about himself, what it would be.
After a pause to consider the question, he flashed a wry smile and answered a certain part of the male anatomy.
“Part of me did think it was pretty damn funny. Part of me was disappointed just because that might get more attention,” Huff said. “From what I understand, it was said in private and somehow it leaked. ... I hope people don't think this is a great reflection of who Trey is. He is a fun-loving guy, but there's a time and a place for it. It probably would have been better if he had not said it. I think Trey would not have said it had he known it's going to be what he's most recently remembered for.”
Adams quickly made the rounds on the Internet, which he laughed off by saying he now knows how it feels to “go viral.”
“I'm trying to make an impression, man, and I've got to make people remember me,” he said. “The only person I would say that wasn't very excited was my mother. My dad loved it. My teammates loved it. I didn't plan to say that, it just kind of came out.”
Shortly after the combine, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the country, meaning Adams did not have a chance to improve his numbers at Washington’s pro day. Previously, Adams had accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl in January, but a mild hamstring injury kept him out, which also didn’t help his draft standing.
“There's a lot of ‘what ifs,’ but right now I'm in Buffalo,” Adams said. “I'm excited to be on the team. I'm happy. I'm just ready to get to work. I'm not one to look back and say, 'Oh, this could have happened.' Everything happens for a reason, and I'm just happy to be a part of such a great city and organization and everything.”
Adams is all about finding silver linings, and if there is one about going undrafted, it’s that a player is free to choose which team he signs with. After hitting it off with Bills offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, Adams said deciding to come to Buffalo was an easy decision.
“I just felt like it was the perfect fit,” he said. “I got a lot of insight on coach (Sean) McDermott, the owners, the city. … I like cold weather if that has anything to do with it. The fan base is amazing. Honestly, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”
On paper, it’s a good match. The Bills did not draft an offensive lineman. Adams has a path to crack the 53-man roster as a reserve tackle, but he will have a lot to prove between now and the start of the regular season to be considered.
Dion Dawkins is locked in as the starter at left tackle, and second-year veteran Cody Ford should get the first chance as the starting right tackle. Behind them, veteran Ty Nsekhe figures to serve as the swing tackle, although it should be noted Nsekhe turns 35 in October and is entering the final year of his contract. Adams could be a candidate for the expanded practice squad, but he would need to clear waivers, meaning the Bills could lose him to another team.
Adams has used the time away from football to continue to rehab, and believes he’s finally back to 100%.
“He's mean,” said Huff, the Washington line coach. “It starts with that mentality. He has that finish, that killer instinct. He is a big guy that can move. He moves around extremely well for as big as he is. He's smart. He feels the game pretty good. Through the course of a game, whether it's pass blocking or run blocking, he's smart enough to kind of figure players out and play to his strengths. He understands leverage.”
Huff said he doesn’t know if Adams can truly be 100% recovered – back injuries can often be impossible for offensive lineman to overcome – but believes the first step is Adams rebuilding his confidence.
“I believe in him. I really do,” Huff said. “Let's be honest – there are a lot of things in sports that have to do with confidence. Having that confidence in your body, it'll start to translate to some good production on the field. If he can get back to being healthy, I think everybody in Buffalo is going to be really excited about him.
“He has a great attitude. I'm not going to sit here and say it was easy, but I would think that most guys that went through what he went through and also dealing with what the expectations were at one point – to have all that happen – that would unfortunately sink a lot of players. Was it easy for him? No, absolutely not. He's showed some real, true perseverance and some mental toughness going through the things he has and I know that will help him out in football and in life.”
Adams could have dwelled on the negatives. He could have lamented where he might have been drafted and his unfortunate luck with injuries. He could have brooded over the unique challenges presented to him by a pandemic that canceled all football-related activities in the spring. That’s not his style, though.
“It does feel weird, definitely, just staring at a screen, but that's all I know right now,” he said of the Bills’ virtual spring practices. “This is the NFL to me. If we did this every year, that would be all I know. I don't know what other teams are doing, but I know the Bills. They've got it dialed in, man. The human interaction isn't there like it would be face to face, but we're getting stuff done. I love the rookie class. We're learning and we're connecting.”
Soon, that opportunity will come for Adams to show what he can do on the field. The often-cited motivation of proving a scouting report wrong doesn’t matter to Adams.
“I don't really listen to that stuff ever, really,” he said. “I can only control what I can control. Those are those people's opinions. … That's not really where my motivation comes from. It comes from myself and my family, and just having an opportunity.”
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