A bit of caution should always be exercised when analyzing who looks good in NFL minicamps.
During the spring, players aren’t in full pads and rarely go full speed. The short amount of time spent on the field is mostly for the coaching staff to install its system.
With those caveats out of the way, it’s worth pointing out Isaiah Hodgins turned heads for the Buffalo Bills over the last month. Hodgins, a sixth-round draft pick in 2020, had a strong rookie training camp, but a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve at the start of the season. The team held out hope Hodgins might be able to return later in the year, but it was eventually determined that surgery would be the best course of action. That was conducted in early December, and the six-month recovery period given by doctors concluded in time for Hodgins to shed the red, noncontact jersey he had worn at the start of the spring for the mandatory minicamp in the middle of this month.
“The training staff has done a great job here with rehabbing,” Hodgins said during a recent phone conversation with The Buffalo News following a minicamp practice. “I've been trying to attack it the whole time. It's been a long recovery, but I've been looking forward to this day the whole time. Finally got to take the red jersey off, so I'm excited for the future.”
Previous wear and tear from his college career at Oregon State made surgery inevitable, although Hodgins was hopeful of delaying it until after his rookie season. He had a couple setbacks during camp, however, so the team decided to prescribe a period of rest and recovery. With the shoulder not back to 100% after Hodgins was eligible to come off of injured reserve, however, both sides agreed to shut down the season in order to make a full recovery.
“It was a long recovery and it was kind of a hard decision at first, but I feel like it was a good decision,” he said. “The staff has done a great job of helping me and I feel like I'm pretty healthy right now.”
Even though he was on IR, Hodgins stuck around Buffalo to work with the training staff. He also was able to sit in on team meetings, which provided an invaluable learning experience.
Watching veterans Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown approach every aspect of the job, from practice to recovery to film study, gave Hodgins an idea of what it takes to make it in the NFL.
“I do look at myself as a second-year player. I'm more familiar with the system,” Hodgins said. “Things are starting to slow down a little bit for me. They're starting to click a little bit easier.”
At the same time, though, Hodgins admits that he feels like a rookie when it comes to how he has to prove himself on the field.
“I went through camp last year, but I feel like obviously that wasn't enough,” he said. “Even if I make the team and ball out this year, I have to keep the mentality of 'I have to come in here and prove myself.' It's a new year. Anybody can get replaced and anything can happen. I definitely have that mentality this year that I have to go out there and earn my spot.”
It won’t be easy. The Bills are loaded at receiver. Diggs and Beasley return, and veteran Emmanuel Sanders has replaced Brown. Fellow 2020 draft pick Gabriel Davis is back after a strong rookie season, and they make up the presumptive top four. It’s fair to say Isiah McKenzie has the inside track on the No. 5 receiver role based on his potential to take over for Andre Roberts as the primary return man. After that, the competition is wide open.
Hodgins is squarely in the mix for a sixth or seventh spot at receiver, assuming the team keeps that many, but Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams, Tanner Gentry, Lance Lenoir, Brandon Powell and Marquez Stevenson are all in the same, crowded boat.
“Those things have a way of working themselves out,” head coach Sean McDermott said. “When I was around Andy Reid in Philadelphia for years, he always told the guys to never count the numbers in the lines, just make your reps count, and that's the piece that those players can control. A guy like Isaiah, I think is off to a phenomenal start again because of his process and the offseason, getting himself healthy. … I think he's putting himself in position to make a real move. So that remains to be seen, obviously, with work to be done, but I'm very proud of his mindset and the way he's gotten himself physically ready to go.”
If there was one benefit to spending his rookie season on the sideline, it was that Hodgins was able to spend more time than he otherwise would have at home. His wife, Maya, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son named Isaiah Jr.
“It's not really how I thought how my rookie year was going to go, but it ended up working out for the best,” Hodgins said. “I was happy for my guys, man. They accomplished so much last year.”
Now, heavy competition notwithstanding, Hodgins is ready to join them on the field.
“Every year, there's always going to be something like that, whether it's a free agent or we draft somebody or whatever,” he said. “You've got to realize it's a business and you've got to come out here and prove yourself every year. I feel like the vets do a good job of reiterating that for all the young guys on our team. People like Diggs and Cole and Emmanuel, they say the same thing, that they're trying to do more, do better than what they did last year. They're trying to prove themselves again and keep going. There's no complacency in our wideout room, which is why I love it.”