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Hard to see now, but timing of Wood's exit from Bills has potential bright spot

At the moment, there's nothing that sounds even remotely positive about Friday's news that Eric Wood has been forced into retirement by a neck injury.

The Buffalo Bills are losing a pillar of their team, the anchor of their offensive line, a leader. Their fans are losing someone with whom they had a special connection, a familiar face and voice they felt they could always count on being there to help them cope with years of disappointment. Western New York is losing someone who understood the importance of giving back.

"When I heard this come out, my heart sunk and I had a sickness in my stomach like it was happening to one of my teammates," David Diehl, a former New York Giants Pro Bowl guard and tackle, said by phone. "One of the things you loved about being an offensive lineman is you don't get a lot of praise, but everybody that's on that team and in that huddle, loves the fact that they can look in the huddle and know that there are accountable guys up front. And you're talking about a player in Eric that was that guy."

"I feel terrible for Eric, my heart goes out to him," former Giants center Shaun O'Hara said by phone. "I'm sure it wasn't easy for him and it's obviously going to be a huge void for that O-line. They've probably been one of the more under-appreciated O-lines in the league for the last few years. I mean, when you turn on the film and watch what they're doing, they've been demolishing guys. And Eric was a big part of solidifying the center of that O-line."

That the end of Wood's playing days happened so suddenly only made it harder to process in more ways than one.

From a business standpoint, it leaves the Bills with dead-cap money from the two-year contract extension to which they signed Wood last August. If the team places him on its reserve/retired list before June 1, his cap number would actually jump from its current $8.625 million to $10.39 million. However, there would be a savings of about $400,000 if the club waits until after June 1 to place him on the reserve/retired list. Either way, it was something for which the Bills probably weren't looking to deal with this offseason.

Yet, that Wood's exit is happening now could very well have a little bit of a bright side in terms of the Bills' ability to adjust.

For one thing, it gives them sufficient time to work out a replacement plan. Thanks to the foresight of matching the offer sheet he received from the Los Angeles Rams as a restricted free agent last year, they have veteran Ryan Groy, who took over for the final seven games of the 2016 season after Wood suffered a broken leg. They also have plenty of time to seek another experienced center in free agency or find a player at the position in the draft ... or do both.

For another, the Bills have a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll. It seems likely they'll be incorporating a different scheme with a different center and quarterback, presuming Tyrod Taylor doesn't return as the starter.

"The timing works well for the Bills," former long-time NFL guard Geoff Schwartz said by phone. "I know you planned on Eric Wood coming back next year, but now you know. You have months to figure it out. The way (General Manager) Brandon Beane and (coach Sean) McDermott have built up the team, I trust they'll find someone to fill that role and then move on.

"With a new OC and a new center and possibly a new quarterback or a young quarterback in (Nathan) Peterman, they can all learn together. They're able to all do that together, but come up with their own way to do things and make it easy. They would not put as much on a new center as they would an Eric Wood. They're be able to learn together, how to figure out how to run the offense."

Among the intriguing free-agent possibilities are Ryan Jensen of the Baltimore Ravens, Brandon Linder of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Russell Bodine of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Weston Richburg of the New York Giants. Jensen has a connection with Bills offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who previously guided the Ravens' O-line.

The draft is another potential avenue for a center, and an obvious one to look at is Bradley Bozeman from Alabama, considering that Daboll was the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator last season.

Of course, none of the options can necessarily be viewed as upgrades from a steady, nine-year veteran.

"You're losing a guy that started 120 (regular-season) games for you (plus a playoff game)," said Schwartz, a co-host for SiriusXM NFL Radio. "That's not easy to replace. He obviously played through some sort of pain this year. This type of injury doesn't just come out of the blue. It's not like they figured it out after the season. He probably was dealing with this for a little bit of time."

Successful offensive lines, such as the one that helped the Bills lead the NFL in rushing in 2015 and 2016 and rank sixth in 2017, tend to thrive off continuity. Although the team has seen changes at every line spot except center and left guard, which Pro Bowler Richie Incognito has occupied since the beginning of the '15 season, Wood excelled at serving as its primary glue.

"This idea of building up chemistry in an offensive line, it starts in the offseason," Schwartz said. "It starts just getting to know each other, hanging out off the facility, going to dinner, doing fun things together. You build up a friendship with one another that carries over to the way you communicate on the field.

"And, look, it's going to take time with a new center to learn how to communicate with Richie. Richie and Eric Wood, I'm sure, have their own language. They're going to have to come up with a new language with a new center. Those things happen, though, over an offseason of getting just to know each other and being comfortable with each other."

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