Damar Hamlin’s return to football took another step forward this week.
The Buffalo Bills’ second-year safety did not practice fully with the team in its organized team activity workout Tuesday in Orchard Park.
Von Miller says his rehabilitation is going well. And he thinks his return to playing games is going to happen in the first half of the season, not the second.
But Hamlin was running some drills with the other defensive backs in position-by-position work.
Hamlin, who is coming back from suffering cardiac arrest Jan. 2 in Cincinnati, wore his No. 3 jersey. There is no contact for any players at this time of year. All the players fully participating in 11 on 11 work were wearing helmets, but no other pads. Hamlin wore no helmet. He hit a blocking sled with other defensive backs. He worked on shadowing other defensive backs who simulated running pass routes. He did other solo coverage drills.
“We're just going to continue to take it one day at a time and just support Damar in every way possible,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said.
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Hamlin announced on April 18 he had been cleared to begin practices, and his intention was to return to playing football.
"When you think about what really happened and where he’s come from there, it’s a miracle,” Bills defensive backs coach and defensive passing game coordinator John Butler said. “It’s amazing that he’s able to get out here and do what he’s been doing and be involved in all the meetings. ... He’s still got a little ways to go, but each step the players and coaches are embracing him and the journey he’s on, which is unique only to him and what he’s going through.
“To have him out there in the drills, in the walk-through, in the meetings, just around day to day, I think it’s incredible,” Butler said. “And just continuing to look forward to how many more steps he’s going to get to where he eventually wants to get to. I’m just proud to be his coach and proud to be part of that experience.”
Tuesday’s practice was the second of nine OTA workouts on the field that the Bills are conducting over a three-week period. The Bills’ mandatory three-day minicamp is scheduled for June 13-15.
Here are other observations from Tuesday’s session on the grass fields next to the ADPRO Sports Training Center:
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1. Spring practice is not real football.
Just as in training camp, the Bills run individual position drills, seven-on-seven sessions, special-teams sessions and 11 on 11 work. But there are no pads. It’s not real football, which means that drawing big conclusions about how positions will shake out is not advisable. It is a point McDermott stressed before the session.
“Look, at the end of the day, it's shorts and T-shirts and helmets,” McDermott said. “So, you know, I've been fooled before by guys that show up this time of year, and when the pads come on, they don't show up when the game's really played in a physical manner. So I think you've got to be a little bit patient right now in terms of over-evaluating and coming to a conclusion on a player too fast, because the game is the game, and height-weight-speed is height-weight-speed.”
Media are allowed to watch practice one day a week during OTAs. Media are not allowed to report specifically which players are practicing with first, second or third units.
2. Stefon Diggs was one of the few absentees.
The Buffalo Bills reached the 90-man offseason roster limit Monday, re-signing veteran safety Dean Marlowe and signing rookie undrafted free agent Joel Wilson, a tight end from Central Michigan.
OTAs are voluntary practices, and usually a few veterans are absent each week. Receiver Stefon Diggs was not in attendance Tuesday. Also not seen were linebacker Matt Milano, running back Latavius Murray and offensive lineman Greg Mancz. Eighty-six players were seen on the field.
Defensive end Von Miller, recovering from his knee injury, was not practicing, along with center Mitch Morse, safety Jordan Poyer and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips.
Miller on Diggs: ”I like to keep stuff simple. We’re talking about Stefon Diggs, one of the best receivers in the game. We’ve got Josh Allen. He’s not going anywhere. This is our guy. The Josh Allen-to-Stefon Diggs connection is what makes all of these things go for us here in Buffalo.
“He’s not here right now, but I don’t think it should ever be a question is football No. 1 on his mind,” Miller said. “The way he comes out here each and every practice, the way he commits to his teammates. Sometimes you need a little bit of time. ... He’s a proven veteran, a superstar on and off the football field. I don’t think it’s big deal him not being at OTAs. He’s going to be here for mandatory minicamp. He’s going to show he’s a better version of Stefon Diggs on and off the football field.”
3. Eyeball tests.
Last month, Allen said he has "never been as focused or locked in on football." It's an approach that should guide the Bills after last year's playoff clunker.
New defensive tackle Poona Ford, the 6-foot, 310-pound defensive tackle signed from Seattle, sticks out with his body type. He’s clearly the shortest, stockiest guy in the defensive line group. Ford had a would-be sack of Matt Barkley. ... First-round draft pick Dalton Kincaid had an uneventful session, although he plucked every pass that came his way in individual and 7 on 7 drills. ... Nyhiem Hines had a couple drops. ... Big free-agent running back Damien Harris, who was little used as a receiver in New England, looked pretty smooth catching passes in offensive drills. ... New veteran receiver Trent Sherfield held on to a sideline catch with Tre White in tight coverage. ... Cornerback Christian Benford broke up a pass for Justin Shorter. ... Gabe Davis made a nifty one-handed catch on a short pass to the sideline that Allen underthrew. ... Deonte Harty made a good sliding catch for a 25-yard gain on a laser throw from Allen. ... Linebacker Terrell Bernard looked good in tight deep coverage on an incompletion from Allen for Dawson Knox.
4. Report from GM Von.
Miller spent some time watching 11-on-11 work from behind the offense. Who looked good to the aspiring general manager?
“I like Ja'Marcus Ingram,” Miller said of the second-year cornerback. “You know, I said he had a good day and he was like, `No, I didn't have a good day.' So I might have missed something. But he had a good day to me. I like Ja'Marcus Ingram. Our rookie receiver Shorter from Florida. I like him a lot. Big, tall receiver, something that we don't have in that receiver room. ... Shorter's 6-5, he's strong, he's fast, he could catch. I really like Shorter's game.”
5. Rapp brings size.
With Poyer watching the practice from the sidelines, it was an opportunity for newly acquired safety Taylor Rapp to get more attention. Rapp started 48 games the last four years for the Rams. Rapp brings size and athleticism. He looks pretty big on the back line of the defense, at 6-foot, 208 pounds. Poyer is 6-0, 190. Micah Hyde is 6-0, 197.
“Obviously, he understands he’s walking into a room with a ton of experience, but with his toughness and football IQ and experience, as well, we feel like he’s a versatile player,” Butler said. “We love guys who have a versatile background. Just in the concept of their ability to play man, their ability to play zone, their ability to tackle, their ability to play the ball.”
6. Allen brings fun.
Allen typically brings liveliness to the practice, whether he’s joking with teammates or leaving his fellow quarterbacks in the dust sprinting from one part of the field to the other. At one point in a period when receivers were running routes with no defenders, Allen jumped into coverage on Jalen Wayne and covered the rookie receiver stride for stride down the sideline.