In 2015, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Dezmin Lewis found the thrill of getting drafted. The Bills took a seventh-round flyer on the small-school Lewis, who boasted great size (6-foot-4) and leaping ability to go along with it.
Then, reality set in for Lewis that he was in the National Football League. The pressure was on to earn a roster spot, and in turn, he began to put that pressure on himself.
"Last year I think I played with too many nerves," Lewis said following one of the team's 2016 Organized Team Activities. "I didn’t relax, I didn’t go out and have fun."
It certainly showed, too.
Lewis failed to stand out during offseason workout, and once the Bills got to St. John Fisher College for training camp, the thing he trusted his entire life started to fail him: His hands. Dropped passes became a huge issue for Lewis throughout the duration of training camp, and it got to him.
"I felt like I started off shaky," Lewis said of camp in 2015. "That was my main thing: I was stressed out, trying to impress them too much when I really should have just been going out and having fun."
It's hard enough for a seventh-round pick to make the team as it is, but with all the drops to his name, it made it close to a certainty that he wouldn't crack the initial 53- man roster. It's a performance-driven league, and to that point, he hadn't.
Still, something intrigued the Bills about the long, lanky wideout.
"They saw the potential in me, and they knew I had the chance to be someone good," Lewis remarked.
The Bills extended an invite to him to join the practice squad, and to work with the coaching staff for the entire year as both parties tried to unearth the potential of the wide receiver. He let the pressure he put on himself stay in Rochester with last year's camp, and started to pick things up quicker during the year.
Then, with a rash of injuries at the position by the end of the year, the Bills were so impressed that they gave Lewis a chance with the 53-man roster. Ahead of the team's Week 16 games versus Dallas, the wideout was promoted from the practice squad for the final two weeks of the season.
He's transitioned that into the offseason with hard work, and it's paid off to the point where the coaching staff is giving him a serious look in 2016. With Sammy Watkins sidelined from foot surgery, Lewis took reps with the first team during OTAs.
"I think he has taken a big leap forward. He needed to," head coach Rex Ryan admitted. "I think when he came out here initially he was real raw, but he got better and better as the year went on and really encouraged with him right now. He’s obviously got that size that you look for to compete for the ball, to contest the ball, so those are some real good traits that he has but it’s also not that he breaks the huddle and he’s thinking. He knows the system now and so I think that gives him a physical chance to compete."
The pressure that Lewis used to put on himself is now in the rearview mirror, and it all started with just a change in personal philosophy, and growth as a professional football player.
"So now, I just come out, pray before I come out, talk to my teammates and laugh with them — always stay in a good mood. Once you’re having fun around the building, you’ll always have fun on the field," Lewis said. "Right now, I’m just taking everything in from route running, releases… everything I can, so I can prepare for the season."
With uncertainty past the top two on the roster, Lewis has a good of a chance as any to make the 53-man roster in 2016. And if he plays well enough, not just a roster spot, but even playing time could be his this upcoming season.
At least now, Lewis knows his own personal formula: have fun, work hard, and keep the personal pressure off.