Laying the groundwork for continuity on the offensive line will be a key objective for the Buffalo Bills over the next five months.
The Bills benefited from excellent continuity last season on the way to a playoff berth but face the big hurdle of replacing retiring center Eric Wood, who has been the key to the front five's continuity throughout his career.
The Bills ranked sixth in the NFL in continuity in 2017, according to a study by Football Outsiders.
Four of the top six teams in O-line continuity made the playoffs, including the Los Angeles Rams, who ranked No. 1 in the league and essentially started the same five in the same five spots the entire season.
One grain-of-salt qualifier: Cleveland went 0-16 despite ranking second-best in the NFL in offensive line continuity. That speaks more to how awful the Browns were at quarterback, running back and receiver than the quality of their offensive line last year.
The Bills' offensive line could have been a disaster in 2017, given the fact left tackle Cordy Glenn played only the better part of four full games. But the front five was bailed out by the play of Glenn's replacement, Dion Dawkins, who saw 75 percent of the offensive snaps and fared well.
Football Outsiders ranks continuity by three factors: number of starters used (the Bills had only seven), number of week-to-week changes (the Bills had four) and the longest starting streak of any one five-man unit (for Buffalo it was eight games).
"If there's more turnover, it's harder to get the cohesion, to get the players to work together," says Jim McNally, famed former NFL offensive line coach.
The Rams, who went from 4-12 to 11-5, started the same five O-linemen the first 15 games of the season. They rested almost their whole starting offense for a meaningless regular-season finale. Tennessee and Atlanta were the other two playoff teams in the top six of the continuity score.
The bottom three in continuity? That was Detroit (9-7), Indianapolis (4-12) and the Giants (3-13). Detroit saw an NFL-high 12 different players start on the line. The Colts had 11 and the Giants 10.
Every NFL team strives for offensive line continuity. The more the better, in dealing with all of the blocking adjustments made against the different fronts the defense presents and against the different defensive line stunts and blitzes faced in pass protection.
In 2016, the top two teams with the best continuity both were in the Super Bowl (Atlanta and New England).
Wood, whose career has been ended by a neck injury, played every offensive snap last season. Left guard Richie Incognito played 99 percent of the snaps, and right tackle Jordan Mills played 97 percent. Right guard Vlad Ducasse played every snap the last 12 regular-season games, once he took over for John Miller.
The return of Incognito, who will be 35 in July and agreed to a pay cut for the final year of his Bills deal, was particularly important for the Bills given the loss of Wood. Incognito has 150 career starts, Mills 66, Ducasse 42 and Dawkins 11.
"We’re glad that Richie is still going to be here, and came off a Pro Bowl year," said General Manager Brandon Beane. "He’ll bring some leadership for us with Wood’s departure."
The sooner in preseason the Bills settle on the replacement for Wood, the better their line continuity figures to be. Newly acquired center Russell Bodine has 64 career starts. Incumbent Ryan Groy has 11.
Story topics: Eric Wood