Bills at OL: An area of strength now carrying its share of questions - The Buffalo News
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Bills at OL: An area of strength now carrying its share of questions

This is the fifth of a series that examines where the Buffalo Bills stand at each position heading into training camp, which begins July 27. Today’s installment looks at offensive line.

Offensive line once ranked as one of the stronger areas for the Buffalo Bills.

Now, it is looking, shall we say, a bit wobbly.

Pro Bowl left guard Richie Incognito is still far and away the best player of the unit and enters his 11th NFL season as one of the league's top players at his position.

However, there are more questions surrounding him than the Bills have had since his arrival in 2015.

Left tackle Cordy Glenn ended offseason workouts watching from the sidelines in a walking boot to help with the healing of a nagging ankle problem. Rookie Dion Dawkins, who was drafted to challenge for the starting job at right tackle, took his place.

Meanwhile, Jordan Mills, who struggled badly through much of last season, maintained the No. 1 job at right tackle by default.

John Miller's grasp of the starting spot at right guard he has held since his rookie season in '15 has become tenuous, with veteran free-agent pickup Vlad Ducasse sharing first-team reps with him during offseason workouts.

And did we mention that center Eric Wood, the ultra-solid anchor of the group that has helped the Bills lead the NFL in rushing the past two years, is entering his ninth season having rehabilitated from a broken leg that caused him to miss the final seven games of 2016?

Here's the breakdown at offensive line:

Returning: Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn, John Miller, Jordan Mills, Ryan Groy, Seantrel Henderson, Michael Ola and Patrick Lewis.

Newcomers: Dion Dawkins, Vlad Ducasse, Cameron Jefferson, Jordan Mudge, Greg Pyke and Zach Voytek.

Better, worse or the same?: Slightly worse, and that might be a charitable assessment.

Positional analysis – Offense

The Bills used a second-round pick on Dawkins to eventually replace Mills. The former Temple standout will get his chance to do so, but Glenn first must be able to get back on the field, which coach Sean McDermott said he expects by training camp.

The question is, will Glenn, who missed five starts last season with injuries, be able to stay healthy? And will he rebound from the down season that followed his signing a massive contract extension?

McDermott raised some eyebrows during the Bills' mandatory minicamp when he told reporters that Mills was having "one heck of an offseason." Wood and Incognito also gave supportive comments to a teammate widely viewed as the line's weakest link. Mills has poured plenty of work into trying to improve his game, but whether it will be enough to hold off the charge of Dawkins remains to be seen.

The Bills' options for tackle depth are severely compromised, first, by the fact Henderson will miss the first five games of the season while serving the balance of a 10-game NFL suspension he received last year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

Then there was Cyrus Kouandjio, a huge disappointment since the Bills made him a second-round draft pick in 2014, making the team's decision to release him easy after compounding a broken hip he suffered in January while taking a fall from a second-floor balcony while exercising at his apartment in Orchard Park with a bizarre encounter with police in April. The lasting memory Bills fans will have of Kouandjio is standing, half-clothed in a field in Elma, before being taken to ECMC for observation.

The potential promise could come from Ola, who impressed coaches with his offseason work.

Miller performed better last season than he did during a rookie year when his body wore down from the rigors of the NFL, but he no longer has the support of the man who drafted him, former Bills GM Doug Whaley. The new regime wants to see if Ducasse, who was signed early in free agency, can provide an upgrade at right guard.

Wood seems to be making a strong recovery from the broken right leg he suffered during last November's Monday night game at Seattle, although he did get periodic rests from offseason drills. The injury is less severe than the break he suffered in his left leg as a rookie in 2009, so Wood is optimistic he'll be in top form this summer.

If there is any issue, the Bills have as strong a backup at center as any team in the NFL in Groy, who did so well in Wood's place last season that the team gave him a two-year contract extension worth $5 million, with $3.5 million guaranteed.

Beyond the uncertainty of personnel, there is the challenge of adapting to the wide-zone blocking scheme of new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Although it figures to be a good fit for the outside speed of running back LeSean McCoy and the ability of quarterback Tyrod Taylor to make plays on the perimeter with his feet and passing arm, it won't necessarily be easy for the linemen to be on the move more often than they've been in previous schemes.

Next: Defensive line

More from Bills pre-camp series:

Bills at QB: Could pay cut and uncertain future negatively impact Taylor?

Bills at RB: LeSean McCoy still looks to be at the top of his game

Bills at WR: Lack of commitment to Sammy Watkins speaks volumes

Bills at TE: Wait for the Charles Clay payoff continues

Bills at OL: An area of strength now carrying its share of questions

Bills at DL: Higher accountability for Marcell Dareus, simpler scheme could lead to greater production

Bills at LB: Could new role and additions help Lorenzo Alexander have a strong encore to impressive '16 season?

Bills at DB: Hard to see immediate improvement in revamped secondary

Bills at ST: Stephen Hauschka figures to spark a rebound in the kicking game

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