Dion Dawkins rarely pulls any punches.
That’s especially true when the Buffalo Bills’ left tackle shares his feelings on his teammate along the offensive line, eighth-year veteran Bobby Hart.
“Me, I'm a very honest guy. I didn't like Bobby too much last year,” Dawkins said. "Like, at all. And he knows that. Like, I told him, I said, 'Bobby, I didn't like you bro.' You weren't taking football serious enough for me. He understood that, and I told him that.”
That’s a rather blunt assessment, but Dawkins wasn’t alone in his feelings last year. Hart became a punching bag for all of Bills Mafia after some rough moments in the 2021 preseason. Hart ultimately was released at final cuts before last season, then joined the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad. After a couple of weeks there, he was released and rejoined the Bills on the practice squad.
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Hart was then signed by the Titans to their 53-man roster off the Bills’ practice squad and ultimately appeared in three games for Tennessee before getting released again. He again joined the Bills’ practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster late in the year.
Still, Hart could never shake the reputation he earned through his rough preseason, so when the Bills signed him to a one-year contract extension in April, the move was met with plenty of eye rolls and snarky comments from fans. Hart, though, blocked out the external criticism and ultimately earned a spot on the team’s 53-man roster with a much better summer. A position switch from tackle to guard appeared to help the 28-year-old get more comfortable, but Dawkins said Hart’s transformation goes beyond that.
“I'm very proud of Bobby – very proud. This year, I told him ‘You have completely changed. You've changed your mindset. You've changed the way that you handle and approach the day,’ ” Dawkins said. “How he approaches practice – I don't hear him complaining anymore. ... He is an entirely different person and I am very proud of him. If he is listening – I try to keep him on track every day – but Bobby, I'm proud of you, and I hope that you're here for a nice chunk.”
Hart entered the NFL as a seventh-round pick of the Giants in 2015, spending three seasons in New York. He then signed with the Bengals and started 45 of 46 games over the next three seasons. For his career, he’s made 67 starts in 84 games. When he got to Buffalo, however, Hart admitted there was a level of expectation that he wasn’t totally prepared for.
“The continued success here, the guys that we have in the building, from what I've seen, it's a different aura,” he said. “Coming in from what I had been accustomed to, it's a lot different. … I would say that's the biggest difference is just the work that I had to put in … after I knew what it was like here and I knew the level of competition. The speed of things. I knew what I had to prepare myself for.”
Hart had previously played right tackle exclusively in the NFL, so when the Bills moved him to the left side in training camp in 2021, it ended poorly. The experience, though, taught him that he needed to diversify his skillset.
“Coming in this year, I knew I was going to have to play left tackle or play another position, so I trained for it in the offseason more than I had done previously,” he said. “It's definitely a challenge with the guys that we've got on our D-line, but at the end of the day, I'm just a competitor, no matter what it is. … To go in at guard, I mean it's not the position that I played my entire career, but you just want to do well. You want to be able to compete with the guys, your peers, and just do well.
“The thing is to get on the field. I done started a lot of games in my career, so if they're telling me that's my best chance to get out on the field, I'm not about to sit here and continue to say, 'Hey, I want to play tackle.' If they put me on the field at guard, I'm going to get good at it. I'm going to keep going until I become good at it. That's just my mindset.”
It says something that the Bills have now signed Hart four times. Clearly, they believe he can help them when called upon. Hart was active for the season opener against the Rams, and played two snaps on offense and five on special teams. His versatility to back up multiple positions is valuable on game days.
“I done been around the league, and this is just top of the top when it comes to how they handle business – being straightforward,” Hart said. “You're not having to really do too much guessing. When they said they would be interested in bringing me back, then they brought me back. I know how few and far in between it is in this league to be out of it and not get no calls. I owed it to myself and owed it to them to show them they made the right decision bringing me back here and I've got something to offer. I can still ascend in this league and continue to get better no matter where you put me.”
As a team leader, Dawkins has been thrilled to see Hart’s new approach.
“It's a domino effect. If the person isn't right, the player is going to be just as wrong,” he said. “You can see that he's taking his situation and his life serious. He’s not being mentally highjacked from his peers or anybody that was helping him complain or helping comfort him saying, ‘Yeah Bobby, you should be playing, you are good enough’ when he wasn't. He knew it. This year, he came back and bounced back strong. Literally every day – I remind him of that. As a man, nobody's perfect.
“Now, he's open to wanting to be a guy and wanting to learn and get that extra input. It's been working. I'm happy for him. I think that Bobby Hart had an amazing camp. He's still playing well.”