PITTSFORD – One of the few starting positions on the Buffalo Bills thought to be ripe for competition at training camp has so far proved fruitless.
That’s because Jordan Mills has shown no signs of letting go of the right-tackle job he claimed at the end of last season.
“He’s been playing well since he got here,” Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “He fits in well. There’s the same type of attitude and mentality that we need from our offensive line.”
In today’s NFL, it’s rare that a team can return the same five offensive lineman from one season to the next. Money usually dictates changes. Either a player does well and wants more of it, or does poorly and a team doesn’t want to pay as much.
But with Bills being able to re-sign left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito this offseason, they’ll bring back the same five who started the 2015 season finale against the New York Jets. Those two will be joined by center Eric Wood, right guard John Miller and Mills.
“There’s a lot of verbal and non-verbal communication that goes on between an offensive line, and to already have that established is valuable,” Wood said. “We’re comfortable in the offense. Last year, we were really focusing on learning the plays. At this point, we know most of the plays. We’re putting in some new stuff – we always want to keep expanding – but for the majority, we know it.”
Especially at this point in the season, that’s important.
When the Bills open the preseason Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Taylor will no longer be wearing a red non-contact jersey. One miscommunication or blown assignment could have a drastic impact on the 2016 season.
“You have to be ready, because they’re coming for your quarterback whether it’s a preseason game or not,” Wood said. “We’ve got to be more consistent. We had a few games last year where we just really wet the bed – just terrible performances. We came back in some games, but you’ve got to start more consistent.”
The Bills led the NFL in rushing last season, which on the surface speaks highly of the offensive line. But a closer look reveals some of what Wood describes.
The analytics website Football Outsiders ranked the Bills’ offensive line just 23rd in the NFL in adjusted line yards – a formula that takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based a sliding scale determined by the length of the run The Bills also were 27th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders, with an adjusted sack rate of 8.4 percent.
Those numbers would seem to give the Bills’ offensive line all the motivation it needs, but some extra bulletin-board material came from former Bills General Manager Bill Polian when he uttered the now famous phrase that the team’s offensive line is “aging and unathletic.”
That became a de facto slogan for the team in the summer, with Incognito and Wood going back and forth on social media posting videos of themselves doing any manner of athletic things. Wood, for example, shared a video of himself wakeboarding.
“That one was fun,” he said with a laugh. “My whole thing was, unathletic compared to who? Other offensive lines? I’d argue that we’re one of the most athletic and we do the most on the field as far as other offenses. We all pull. Centers, guards, tackles, whatever. But if you’re comparing us to the skill guys, then yes we are.”
If there were any question marks on the offensive line coming into training camp, they were on the right side of the line.
Miller fought through injuries during his rookie season, and also suffered a personal tragedy when his mother died.
“He’s shown a lot through camp that he’s a very talented player,” Wood said.
That leaves just right tackle. A three-man competition was expected to take place between Mills, Seantrel Henderson and Cyrus Kouandjio. But Henderson is on the active/non-football illness list as he recovers from two offseason surgeries to combat Crohn’s disease, while Kouandjio suffered a minor knee injury and has missed time during the first week of training camp.
That has made it Mills’ spot to lose.
“He’s doing a good job,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “He keeps competing but … we haven’t even gone through a preseason game or anything yet. But I think he’s doing a nice job for us.”
Mills signed with the Bills before the team’s Week Seven game in London during the 2015 season and took over as the starter for the final five games of the year.
That gave him some valuable time to build chemistry with the other four members of the line. The Bills re-signed him to a one-year contract as a restricted free agent.
“I’m very comfortable being around the guys,” the 6-foot-5, 316-pounder said. “We’re progressing every day.”
Ryan has stopped short of saying the starting job now belongs to Mills, but the 25-year-old is confident that things will work out if he keeps doing what’s asked of him.
“I can’t worry about any competition,” he said. “I just have to worry about doing my job to the best of my abilities. If I do that, things will take care of themselves.”
Each day in practice, Mills lines up against defensive end Jerry Hughes, so he’s getting a good test.
“He’s one of the great pass rushers in this league,” Mills said. “There’s very few that can bend and run the way Jerry does. I compare him to Von Miller. So it’s definitely a confidence boost going up against him.”
Taylor gets a firsthand look at the results every day.
“Looking forward for them to be even better this year,” he said of the offensive line. “They’re accepting the challenges and going out there and practicing hard each and every day. We have a true professional at every position. … You can see that they definitely get their hard work daily.”