Zebrie Sanders looked like a good value pick by the Buffalo Bills when he was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
The 6-foot-6, 318-pound offensive tackle had started 50 of 53 career games at Florida State, second most in the rich football history of the Seminoles’ program.
But Sanders’ career has been sidetracked by injury – two of them, actually – that caused him to spend his entire rookie season on injured reserve. Sanders tore the labrum in his right hip during training camp.
Determined to make the roster, he played through the injury. But on the day of the final cuts, the Bills placed him on injured reserve. Just days later he was in surgery to have the injury repaired.
“It was definitely real stressful for me,” Sanders said.
It would get worse before it got better. While rehabbing from the first surgery, Sanders found out he also had torn the labrum in his left hip. That necessitated a second surgery, which was performed in November.
Each surgery involved shaving the bone around his hip and repairing the tear. It’s exactly as painful as it sounds.
Sanders was off his feet for a couple of weeks after each operation, so the adage that he needed to learn to walk before he could run again was especially true.
He credits the Bills’ trainers with helping him do that.
“I think it went real good. Just staying here the whole offseason, working with the trainers here, they did a great job, trying to take it step by step – slowly,” he said.
“Right now, I’m feeling good, man. I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in nine months. It’s just a good situation that I’m here, and now actually out here doing individual and hopefully I’ll be able to move on and go to full, strenuous practices.”
While it hasn’t been determined exactly when that will be, Sanders and the team have set a goal to be ready by the start of training camp. Recovery from each surgery is estimated to take six months.
“I haven’t been able to practice, so I feel like I am behind in that respect,” he said. “Once I feel like I can get out and start going with the team, the whole thing, I think I’ll be up to speed.”
He’ll need to quickly, because as it stands, Sanders is competing for the fourth tackle spot on the roster – assuming the Bills keep that many. Cordy Glenn is entrenched as the starter at left tackle, while Erik Pears and Chris Hairston are the favorites on the right side. Sam Young and Thomas Welch figure to be Sanders’ primary competition, but they have also worked inside at guard, so their versatility may be an advantage.
Sanders has bounced between the second and third units at left tackle in the limited reps he’s seen during spring practices. At Florida State, he played tackle on both sides of the line.
“I think I’m ready for both,” he said. “Whatever the coaches want me to do that will get me on the field, I’m up for it.”
Because his availability has been so scarce, it’s been impossible for new coach Doug Marrone to gauge Sanders’ potential.
“That’s the problem when players get injured,” Marrone said. “You have a couple things: One, when you have experience with a player and he’s injured you kind of rely on that thinking he’s going to come back and he can be better or start off where he left off, which you really don’t do. And then when you’re talking about a player that you have no experience with, and he hasn’t been available, I don’t think it’d be really fair for me to judge him. I’m just waiting to see him get healthy.”
The Bills finished a 10th day of voluntary spring practices Friday. They are off for a week and return June 11 for three days of mandatory minicamp practices. Marrone rotated players through the first and second units during the workouts and used players at numerous spots.
“The one thing I did like throughout the 10 days was the competitiveness, whether it was generated from the individual player, or it was generated because we were moving people around so much,” Marrone said. “That’s the type of competitiveness I was looking for.”
With the players off for a week, “We have a chance to go back through the tapes again,” the coach said, “looking at the reps, the performances and the results in doing that and seeing where we are from that standpoint, coming in to the next phase which is the mandatory minicamp.”
Undrafted rookie Nickell Robey, from Southern California, was working as the slot cornerback with the first-teamers on defense. Said Marrone: “I think he’s made plays. … Now today he made a great break on the ball, had it. He could’ve caught that ball and scored a touchdown. That’s what we expect him to do. But I think he’s someone who’s come in and really done a nice job as far as a free agent and made plays and made an impression on the staff.”
Dorin Dickerson is back working with tight ends. Dickerson, an undrafted rookie out of Pitt, was a tight end last season. He started out this spring working as a receiver.
“We thought he would have a good opportunity to go to receiver and play for us,” Marrone said. “He actually came to us and wanted to go back to the tight end position. So I think we have a player right now who can do a good job playing both positions.”
All the Bills were in attendance this week except for four: safety Jairus Byrd, defensive end Alan Branch, linebacker Manny Lawson and receiver Brandon Kaufman. Byrd is not under contract but has been retained by the Bills via the franchise tag.
News sports reporter Mark Gaughan contributed to this report.