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Bills O-line is facing steep learning curve

Aaron Kromer keeps it simple when explaining what it takes to start on the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line that he coaches.

Block the right guy more often than not, and you’ll have the best chance to end up with the first unit.

Kromer uses the terms “block” and “guy” loosely, because so far in offseason workouts, the players at his position are essentially going against air. Painted spots are placed on the field to simulate the defenders.

“So they have to step to the right ‘guy,’ use their hands correctly, use the right footwork,” he explained recently.

Some of the linemen are grasping the concept faster than others. For instance, of all of the guards with whom Kromer is working, the one who has consistently done the best so far is third-round draft pick John Miller. Consequently, the former Louisville standout has taken plenty of snaps with the starting offensive line and has seemingly established an early edge over the three players who started at left guard last season: longtime veterans Chris Williams (who hasn’t been part of voluntary workouts) and Kraig Urbik, and second-year man Cyril Richardson.

“We’re in the learning process right now,” Kromer said. “Is John Miller learning quickly? I would say yes. He has a good background coming out of college and when we interviewed him for the draft, we knew that he had the ability to learn quickly and to adapt to technique just through our interviews, so it’s been a good start, but it’s only a start and we have a long way to go.

“Early on, John has shown to adapt the quickest from the group. And we’re going to continue to rotate. He won’t get all the first-team reps and neither will anyone else. We’ll give everybody a shot because we want to make sure it’s a fair competition and fair means the guys that continue to earn that opportunity will get it.”

When the Bills determine their five starting offensive linemen, Kromer says they won’t necessarily assemble the “five most talented” players they have at the position.

They will focus on those who show the best understanding of what they are supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it. That’s because the Bills intend to build what Kromer describes as a “technically physical offense,” which requires linemen to be particularly sharp with technique and fundamentals, while also possessing a high level of physicality.

“It’s aggression within technique,” he said. “Because with just aggression, you’re not going to have success and with just technique and not that mentality, you won’t have as much success as you like.”

That won’t be easy to teach, especially with a group that has mostly been instructed to do zone-blocking – in which there is less emphasis on aggressiveness and more on finesse and movement – from the Bills’ previous coaching staff.

For the most part, Kromer will be doing plenty of re-teaching.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to find the five guys we trust to block the right guy, use the right technique, and that we can count on to be consistent within our offense,” he said. “And if that fits the bill for” Miller, “he’ll have that opportunity, as well as with” all of the contenders to be “the five that fit within that realm. The smarter you are, the easier it is to take on the challenge of learning the offense and the techniques and things we need to do.

“The hardest thing for an offensive line coach is to watch guys on tape and then to try to convert it to what you’re going to use technique-wise. It’s hard to evaluate what they can do until you get them to the grass. Until you change their stance and get them in the position you want them in, it’s hard to tell whether they can do it.

“So I think it’s really going to be – as much as you hate to hear it – a work in progress. It’s going to take a long time to get them with the new offense, the new techniques and the new things, so where guys fit? Gosh. Tell me who we have at the end and how they adapt to the new things being taught. Then I can tell a little more how they fit. But then you still won’t know until they go out and work together.”

The Bills will have their first chance to see how all of their players perform on “the grass” Tuesday, when they start organized team activity practices. They still won’t be doing any contact drills, but at least offensive and defensive players will be lining up against each other and have a much better perspective on how plays are supposed to be executed.

That will be particularly beneficial for the offensive linemen.

“OTAs will be the next step, but not the ultimate step,” Kromer said. “An offensive lineman earns his stripes in training camp and throughout preseason and as the season goes in games. So it’s going to be a while until we really know who those five are, but the more times you approach the block the right way, block the right guy, use the right technique, the more opportunities each guy will get.”

Still, the Bills have tried to get the most out of offseason workouts by mixing and matching their offensive linemen. Tackles Cordy Glenn, who started on the left side last season, and Seantrel Henderson, who started on the right, have been regularly switching spots.

The primary purpose is to see where each performs the best. Identifying the best left tackle, who almost always protects a right-handed quarterback’s blind side, is the priority. Last season, Henderson provided enough reason to at least be a candidate to move there, while Glenn didn’t necessarily perform well enough to be considered a lock as the starter on the left.

“Whether one has done better than the other, I couldn’t say at this point,” Kromer said. “But it’s giving them an opportunity to have a feel before they have to go against someone – giving them a feel of the stance and the movements they have to make. And that’s all we’re trying to do is give these guys as many opportunities as possible to have success.”

Where does Cyrus Kouandjio fit into the mix? Does last year’s second-round draft choice, who didn’t see any action on the line as a rookie, have what it takes to be a starting tackle in the NFL?

“You know, I haven’t seen Cyrus play in an NFL game, so I can’t answer that at this point,” Kromer said. “But from what he’s shown, he’s shown an aptitude to learn what we’re trying to get done as well.”

Richie Incognito, who is the presumptive favorite to replace Erik Pears (who signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent) at right guard, hasn’t played an NFL game in more than a year because of his suspension stemming from a bullying scandal when he was with the Miami Dolphins in 2013.

Team owner Terry Pegula and coach Rex Ryan have said they are more than satisfied that Incognito is a changed person and are convinced he will help make arguably the weakest area on the team last season significantly better. Kromer said he is keeping an open mind about Incognito, both as a person and a player.

“They’re all starting with a fresh slate, and so he’s no different from” the rest of “them,” Kromer said. “I’ll make all judgment and we’ll make all judgment on how each guy is here today from here on out. How do they deal with me? How do they deal with each other in this building? And how do we deal with player to player and coach to player? And we’ll go from there.

“I think he’ll be fresh. He’s played long enough that a year should not have hurt him. I mean, there are plenty of guys that hurt themselves and miss an entire year, and no one ever talks about that. It’s all about the injury. So he should be healed up and fresh and ready to go. Seeing the strength coaches talk about how he’s working out, he’s definitely in good shape.”

In the coming weeks and months, Incognito and the rest of the linemen will have ample opportunities to show they belong in the starting lineup.

It’s all about blocking the right guy more often than not.

“We’re leaving it open to competition and how they adapt,” Kromer said. “And each position will be competitive, and the best five working together will be the ending line. And if that’s not working as time goes and we realize that someone else might fit in, then we’ll make that move as well. When you’re young in a program, nothing can be set in stone.”


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