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Road to the Combine: Look to Big Ten for offensive-line talent

The most important conversation Doug Whaley has this week in Indianapolis will not be with an NFL draft prospect. Rather, the Buffalo Bills’ meetings with agents for Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito loom larger than any 15-minute speed date with a 20- or 21-year-old potential pick.

In 2015, the Bills led the NFL in rushing. But the two men most responsible for that up front are set to be unrestricted free agents.

Yes, uncertainty looms large into March. For a team without any wiggle room under the salary cap, getting deals done with both is going to be difficult.

Tackle or guard could be a need again, whether it’s in the first round with someone like Ohio State’s Taylor Decker or Michigan State’s gritty Jack Conklin or the later rounds with someone like Wisconsin’s Tyler Marz, the latest NFL-bound Badger.

“There’s always been a tradition with the O-linemen,” Marz said. “The older guys lead the way and then they’re more than willing to help out, give pointers. It’s a brotherhood that definitely helped me.”

Not that the Bills’ front office hasn’t been taking swings at the plate.

Since 2010, the Bills have drafted 10 total tackles and guards: T Ed Wang (2010, fifth round), T Kyle Calloway (2010, seventh), T Chris Hairston (2011, fourth), T Glenn (2012, second), T Zebrie Sanders (2012, fifth), G Mark Asper (2012, sixth), T Cyrus Kouandjio (2014, second), G Cyril Richardson (2014, fifth), T Seantrel Henderson (2014, seventh) and G John Miller (2015, third).

Results, of course, have been mixed.

For an offense committed to the run – Buffalo’s 31.8 attempts per game were second-most in the NFL – replenishing talent up front will be vital again. Because the original plan was for Kouandjio to serve as a point of leverage in such talks with Glenn by now. He should be a third-pro entering his prime. Instead, the team showed so little confidence in the former 44th overall pick last season that it signed Jordan Mills off the street midseason and plugged him into the lineup.

When Whaley and Glenn’s agent, Pat Dye Jr., chat, the Bills will be the team in need. By free agency, Glenn will be in high demand – there isn’t much else available at his position.

Thus, Glenn’s “floor” on a long-term deal is expected to be at least $10 million per year and the one-year franchise tag would cost an estimated $13.7 million. So while releasing Mario Williams would free up about $12.9 million, that would evaporate quickly with a tag. Not to mention, Buffalo has a slew of restricted free agents to consider in defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, receiver Chris Hogan, safety Bacarri Rambo, Mills, defensive tackle Stefan Charles, tight end MarQueis Gray and inside linebacker Ty Powell.

This is an organization that must get very creative, very fast at the Monopoly table.

Incognito? All he did was have a career year. Buffalo averaged 6.58 yards per carry running behind the veteran, the best number for any lineman since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking the stat in 2006. Contending teams in need of a nasty edge up front will now be interested in Incognito who proved himself on and off the field after his year in exile.

On the right side of the line, John Miller was up and down as a rookie and battled a high ankle sprain. Henderson was treated for Crohn’s disease last December and lost nearly 20 pounds through extreme stomach pain.

So while Ryan probably would love to think defense-defense-defense this spring, he’ll need to keep that “ground and pound” drumbeat on the mind, too.

The 6-foot-7, 325-pound Marz started the last three seasons at left tackle in Wisconsin’s pro-style offense, one player paving the way for Melvin Gordon’s dynamite 2014 season. While not exceptionally athletic or strong, like his predecessors, he mostly found a way to get the job done. So the Badgers’ assembly line continues yet again.

“I think we do things the right way there,” Marz said, “and teams like that at the next level. I just love to work. I love the process of game week, the offseason, preparing all year ‘round. There’s no secret to it – it’s putting in the work.”

For him personally, seeing his dad work countless side jobs – mowing lawns, shoveling snow, etc. – set a precedent. He’s been doing chores since he can remember. And today, Rick Wagner’s success in the NFL is encouraging. The player Marz replaced, a 168th overall pick, has started 31 of 31 games on the Baltimore Ravens’ line the last two seasons.

Marz will be worth consideration as the draft progresses. Madison, Wis., isn’t a bad place to start for a team that might be counting on the draft up front.

“The guys they recruit there love to work,” Marz said. “They don’t care about the credit or the glory. They come in every day with the same attitude to work their tail off for that two-hour lift, three-hour practice or hour meeting watching film. We all have that same mentality, and that’s what guys like to see even in the real world. It’s a good quality to have.”

Here are five other offensive linemen worth considering in Indianapolis:

• T Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame): After potential No. 1 overall pick, Laremy Tunsil, Stanley is the next best thing and could be a top 10 pick himself. Long arms, athletic, technically sound and durable in starting the last three seasons at Notre Dame.

• Taylor Decker (Ohio State): Like Stanley, Decker decided to stay in school another year when he easily could’ve turned pro. The 2015 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year is a mountain of a man at 6-7, 320 and was known for his strong leadership traits in the locker room. Helped pave the way for Ezekiel Elliott’s two 1,800-yard seasons.

• Jack Conklin (Michigan State): Had zero major college scholarship offers out of high school, walked on at Michigan State and helped build the team’s tough, no-nonsense identity in the Big Ten. Film against top draft prospect DeForest Buckner of Oregon and Ohio State will go a long ways with scouts. He dominated.

• Shon Coleman (Auburn): Incredible story. Coleman overcame acute lymphoblastic leukemia in college. Spent two years at nearby St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, was finally cleared in the spring 2012, redshirted a year and eventually supplanted No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson at left tackle. Not as athletic as Robinson but Coleman may be more physical.

• Cody Whitehair (Kansas State): If the Bills lose Incognito in free agency, guard becomes a need. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Whitehair played all along Kansas State’s line in four years as a starter. Dependable, safe pick who controlled defenders with great balance.

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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