Bills safety Damar Hamlin has accomplished many significant things throughout his near-death experience and subsequent recovery over the past seven months. However, Monday’s milestone was as heavily anticipated a moment as any in his comeback attempt from what many believed to be, at least, a career-ending evening.
For the first time since suffering from commotio cordis in front of a nationally televised audience in Cincinnati, Hamlin took part in his first fully padded practice of Bills training camp at St. John Fisher University. During Monday’s watershed moment, Hamlin did what many thought impossible on Jan. 2 and the days that followed.
With most of his teammates already on the field and anticipation mounting, the safety emerged from the practice field tunnel to a roar from the crowd before taking his place with the defensive backs. But you could tell right away that it was a lot different for him, even from what he exhibited earlier in camp.
Over the first four non-padded days of practice, Hamlin got into a bit of a routine. He ran out to a similar roar to the one he received Monday. As he got to the field for previous practices, he usually faced the crowd and did a similar skip along the sidelines before giving his now well-known heart symbol with both hands to those in attendance.
Except on Monday, there was no facing the crowd, no similar skip along the sidelines or a heart symbol with his hands —just nerves. And for good reason.
“A super big hurdle, as you can imagine,” Hamlin said after Monday’s practice. “I pretty much lost my life playing the sport, you know what I’m saying? So to come back and do it all over again, you know, it’s just, you know, it’s all over the place.”
Hamlin described it as a “roller coaster of emotions,” as he prepared for the opening moments of his first padded practice since January. He found his way to his defensive back teammates, slapped hands with his childhood friend and teammate Dane Jackson, took a deep breath and prepared for what was to come.
The Bills went through their situational period. Then stretching. Then some special teams drills, followed by positional work. It’s old hat to them and just routine on any usual day, but Monday, it was a slow buildup to that first padded contact for Hamlin.
That moment came during the team’s nine-on-seven drill — specifically designed for running the ball and stopping the run. And then came the long-awaited first contact for Hamlin. It wasn’t a lot with running back Damien Harris, but just enough.
“I just felt alive, man. I felt like, ‘I’m here,’” Hamlin said of that first mini-hit. “I’m overcoming a thousand and thousand and thousand and one emotions and processing them all at one time. You know what I mean? While trying to focus and execute, execute at the highest level in the world… So it felt good. It was just that moment of just like, alright, let’s just settle in and let’s just one play at a time. Let’s just keep going.”
While it was good to get the first contact under his belt, Hamlin admitted that in his mind, it was never about just the first contact because what happened to him was, as he put it, “random.” He said the feeling of what happened to him will always be there, from his first day back in pads to his final day playing football, when he retires. But he added that his faith is stronger than the fear, and when he’s on the field, he isn’t thinking twice about his decision to return to football.
As practice wore on, Hamlin participated in every drill without restrictions, primarily working with the second-team defense. And as padded practices stack up over the oncoming weeks, the safety remains acutely aware of what’s in front of him.
“It’s going to be a long, long, long, long, long journey,” Hamlin reflected after Monday’s practice. “Some of these emotions will never leave. Whenever everybody’s not paying attention to me no more, you know, I’ll still be processing these emotions myself, and I know that. But it’s just another hurdle. It’s another thing we got over. And I’ve been doing a good job at pushing myself to get through these tough things…. I never let myself just, like, shy away from them. I’ve been putting myself in uncomfortable situations. But we grow. We grow in those situations.”
All throughout Hamlin’s first day back in pads, it was also the first 2023 practice in pads for the rest of the Bills roster. Here’s what stood out from Day 5 of training camp.
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Allen, Davis and Diggs getting into a groove
It was a slightly slow start for the Bills’ passing offense, though over the last three days of training camp, franchise quarterback Josh Allen and his top two receivers, Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis, have really began to hit their stride. It wasn’t a heavy volume day for Diggs, but the top wideout collected all four of his targets for receptions, two of which went for touchdowns. The first was a deep shot down the right sideline as Diggs worked past cornerback Dane Jackson, and Allen put the perfect touch on the pass to secure the biggest play of the day. The other scoring play came on a red zone opportunity, where Diggs’ footwork froze the Bills’ excellent nickel corner Taron Johnson and got the defender to fall in coverage. Allen quickly saw Diggs uncover and put it right on him for the touchdown.
Allen kept his positive momentum rolling with Davis as well, sending five targets his way during team drills with the duo connecting on three of them. Davis’ best single-play output was working along the right sideline against Tre’Davious White, and getting behind the cornerback in the perfect pocket away from the oncoming safety to bring in the long reception. Allen targeted Diggs or Davis on 60 percent of his attempts during team drills Monday.
No Morse near the end of practice
It didn’t happen until late in the session, but for the first time this training camp, someone other than Mitch Morse was taking first-team reps at center. Morse was standing along the sideline with his helmet off as Ryan Bates took those reps at center, and rookie O’Cyrus Torrence worked at right guard. It remained that way throughout Allen’s last three portions of 11-on-11s, potentially signaling something could have happened throughout practice. Morse had no obvious injury during team drills, and there wasn’t an extensive check-up process on him either. Sometimes the Bills will schedule some in-practice rest for some of their more veteran players like Morse, so that also remains a possibility. Regardless, it will be a situation to monitor heading into Day 6 of training camp on Tuesday.
Another day, another safety getting work at nickel
The Bills have been really switching things up at nickel corner beyond starter Taron Johnson. To this point, we’ve seen Siran Neal get time there, along with usual safeties Taylor Rapp and Cam Lewis. And on Monday, they added another safety to the mix — veteran Dean Marlowe. Monday isn’t the first time Marlowe has moonlighted in the nickel role while playing in Sean McDermott’s defense, as he actually had in-game experience in the role a few seasons ago. Lewis also took some time at nickel on Monday, as the team continues to try and figure out what that depth chart will look like beyond Johnson during the 2023 season. If Lewis or Marlowe endear themselves enough to the coaching staff in that role, along with special teams and some safety experience, it would certainly make a strong case to make the 53-man roster this year. As of now, both Lewis and Marlowe are on the roster bubble.
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Might Shaq Lawson be cracking the door open for others to catch him?
Throughout the first five sessions at St. John Fisher University, longtime veteran defensive end Shaq Lawson hasn’t quite looked the same as in previous seasons. Some of the explosiveness he used to play with hasn’t been as evident, and there isn’t much consistency to generate pressure when rushing the passer. Although Lawson remains well-trained as a run defender, the Bills likely will be targeting players to make the team who can boost their pass rush this season. The slow start for Lawson is great news for players like Kingsley Jonathan and Shane Ray. Jonathan played well in spot opportunities late last season, while Ray has shown some pass-rushing juice throughout the first handful of practices. Defensive end is a loaded position with a lot of talent and roster spots that are hard to come by because there are so many the Bills have that they like already. However, Lawson isn’t necessarily a roster lock this season on a veteran minimum contract with only $452,500 in guaranteed money. If one of Ray or Jonathan outplays him throughout the preseason, along with Von Miller beginning the year on an injured list, it could leave the door open for a surprise defensive end to make the 53-man roster over Lawson this year.
Day 5 non-participants
The Bills were without two players from the beginning of practice through the end of the session, though they were merely reserve players and relative longshots to make the roster. Wide receiver Bryan Thompson and cornerback Kyron Brown did not participate for undisclosed reasons. The Bills also were without defensive end Von Miller, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Tyler Matakevich. However, all three remain on the Physically Unable to Perform list and are ineligible to practice until medically cleared. The Bills will resume practice on Tuesday morning in another fully padded practice.
(Photo of Damar Hamlin: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)