Tommy Sweeney among 5 players to watch as Bills open preseason against the Lions

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

ORCHARD PARK — No one who takes the field Friday night in Detroit will be more thankful to be out there than Buffalo Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney.

A seventh-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Sweeney played in only six games as a rookie, but in catching eight passes for 114 yards he showed enough promise that he figured to have a more prominent role in 2020. 

Instead, the coronavirus arrived and it impacted Sweeney like no other player on the Buffalo roster. 

The 6-foot-5, 251-pounder from Boston College was already dealing with the recovery from offseason foot surgery that prevented him from participating in training camp. Then in October he came down with COVID-19 and it caused an inflammation of his heart, a condition known as myocarditis. Just like that, never mind football; Sweeney’s life was potentially in danger.

“The heart’s obviously a pretty serious thing for us human beings,” Sweeney said, able to smile about it now that he’s back with the Bills and ready to play in a game for the first time since Dec. 29, 2019 when he caught five passes for 76 yards in the meaningless 13-6 season finale loss to the Jets.

“Talking about that,” he continued, “you’re talking about real life. Also, the season’s over and talking about the career. So, it was a lot at once and obviously, definitely alarming.”

More:Maiorana: Bills' roster is mostly set, but great depth competitions are taking place

Tommy Sweeney made five catches for 76 yards in this game against the Jets in 2019, but he hasn't played in a game since.

Sweeney said there were some moments early on when he wondered if he’d ever be able to play again. However, the doctors who treated him assured him throughout that he would recover and be able to resume playing in 2021, and that has proven to be the case.

“At first when I found out and all the emotions are running, there was a thought, but I tried to stay as positive as possible,” he said. “Obviously it wasn’t a good thing, but they were pretty confident we’d be able to get back after we got through that (initial) three-month period. We were optimistic throughout which I think helped once I got back and was at least able to put it in the rear view and keep rolling.”

Sweeney entered training camp in much the same way he did in 2020 before his health problems began. Dawson Knox remains No. 1 on the depth chart and Sweeney most likely slots in at No. 3, only this year he’s directly behind free agent signee Jacob Hollister instead of departed Tyler Kroft.

More:How the Bills stack up at each position entering camp, what the final roster may look like

Sweeney will have to prove he can be reliable as a pass catcher, run blocker and pass protector, and he’ll have to be a contributor on special teams. His primary competition will come from Nate Becker and Quinin Morris, presuming Reggie Gilliam remains as a fullback candidate.

“I don’t feel like I took a step backwards at all,” he said of last season’s inactivity. “I feel like I didn’t play for a year, but I still feel pretty good. It was definitely a year you never get back, but I think for the most part I didn’t lose too much athletically or football wise.”

Here are four other players I’ll be watching closely when the Bills meet the Lions at Ford Field.

1. QB Jake Fromm

Bills quarterback Jake Fromm during training camp.

That is assuming Fromm plays, something we don’t know for sure because outside of saying Josh Allen will sit out, coach Sean McDermott did not share insight into which quarterbacks would play.

Fromm was Buffalo’s fifth-round pick in 2020 and because there was no preseason last year, he’s never taken a snap for the Bills in a game or even a scrimmage. Plus, he was the COVID quarterback which meant he spent the entire 2020 season separated from the team.

“You try and simulate it out here the best you can but there’s still something to be said for playing a game in front of a crowd and in real game situations,” said McDermott. “It has been a while for Jake and probably a few others as well, so it’ll be a good opportunity for them.”

More:Backup QBs Mitchell Trubisky, Davis Webb and Jake Fromm will share time against Lions

Fromm’s chances of making the team seem slim. The belief is that Allen and Mitchell Trubisky will be on the 53-man roster, and McDermott will keep one quarterback for the practice squad and Davis Webb likely has the inside track. 

That is, unless Fromm really plays well in the opportunities he gets and convinces the team that he has more upside than Webb. The bigger issue for Fromm isn’t so much on the field, it’s that Webb, by all accounts, has been a very good resource and mentor for Allen.

2. WR Isaiah Hodgins

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins (87) catches a pass in a practice drill.

Like Fromm, Hodgins sat out all of 2020 though his issue was a shoulder injury that required surgery. He was a sixth-round pick who during his college career at Oregon State caught almost everything thrown his way, and what was so appealing to the Bills was that at 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds, he could add some physicality to the position.

Hodgins has become a forgotten man, though. The Bills are stacked at wide receiver with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie locked in. And this summer, Jake Kumerow has been a standout, so Hodgins’ path to a roster spot is bumpy at best.

He needs to outplay Kumerow, probably by a large margin, to make the team, not to mention fend off challenges from players like Brandon Powell and 2021 sixth-round pick Marquez Stevenson, both of whom are part of the competition at kick and punt returner.

“We feel like we know a portion of our roster,” McDermott said. “In order for us to put this thing together the right way, we’ve got to make sure that we know the back half of our roster. Those opportunities are starting to narrow, and so we’ve got to make sure that Friday night is a chance where we can do that.”

3. DT Justin Zimmer

Nov 1, 2020; Orchard Park, New York; New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) fumbles the ball as he's hit by Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (61) in the fourth quarter at Bills Stadium

Zimmer emerged out of nowhere last season and the journeyman helped fill the void created by Star Lotulelei’s COVID-19 opt-out. He saw action in 12 games, was in on 21 tackles, and made one of the biggest plays of the season, his forced fumble on Cam Newton that saved the home victory over the Patriots.

Now, with Lotulelei back, the competition on the interior of the defensive line is ramped up, especially given that newcomers Efe Obada and Boogie Basham have shown the ability to play both inside and on the edge. 

“No matter where you’re at, and how deep the team is, you don’t look at the numbers, at least I don’t,” Zimmer said. “Just because if you get caught up in the numbers, then you’re worried about where you’re playing, when you’re getting reps, and all that. I learned a while back, just when you’re in there, make some plays and let everything else play out.”

Zimmer is now 28 and that could work against him because everyone he’s battling beside Lotulelei is younger than him. But then there’s this: He’s undoubtedly having a very good camp and he knows that the Bills’ coaching staff bases its decisions on merit.

“I have tons of respect for our staff and they show the same thing back to me,” he said. “You go out there and if you make plays, you get more opportunities, and that’s not the case everywhere. Sometimes it’s based on draft status, how much you’re paid. You’re making plays and they’re going to reward you for it.”

4. CB Dane Jackson

Bills cornerback Dane Jackson during a training camp practice.

The only starting position that is truly up for grabs in training camp is right cornerback, and to date, incumbent Levi Wallace is clearly pacing ahead of Jackson.

Now that the games are here, it’s an opportunity for Jackson to shine because that’s what he did as a rookie in 2020. When Wallace was sidelined with an injury, Jackson rose to the occasion and played pretty well for a raw seventh-round pick.

It was that showing that vaulted him into direct competition this year with Wallace, but he has been inconsistent in practice. He’ll make a very good play using instinct and athleticism, but then he’ll get torched on the next play. Barring an injury, it’s tough to believe Wallace won’t start opening day against the Steelers.

“He’s embraced this opportunity,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of Jackson. “He’s working his tail off; we’re looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.”

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana