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Incognito becomes O-line’s feel-good story of season

This is the fifth of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the offensive line.

By Vic Carucci

NEWS SPORTS REPORTER

Last February, when the Buffalo Bills signed veteran guard Richie Incognito, the big news wasn’t about how they had taken a significant step toward improving their offensive line.

It was all about the risk they were taking by bringing aboard the central figure in one of the more controversial NFL stories in recent memory – a player viewed as being so toxic that, once he was reinstated from his suspension after a 2013 bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins, no team would touch him in 2014.

Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?

The addition of Incognito not only did wonders to bolster one of the weakest areas of the team, but it also proved to be one of the Bills’ best free-agent acquisitions in a long time.

Not only did he establish himself as arguably the team’s best player, but he also was, by all accounts, a model citizen in the locker room and everywhere else.

Thanks in no small part to Incognito and stepped-up performances from others on the line, the Bills led the NFL in rushing with 2,432 yards and their offense improved from 26th to 13th in the league.

At the very least, the Bills demonstrated that they have some of the essential pieces for the highly creative blocking scheme – which keeps opponents frequently guessing with its variations and movement – of offensive coordinator Greg Roman. They also showed that more are needed for this unit to make even bigger strides.

The breakdown follows:

Signed: Tyson Chandler, Ryan Groy, Seantrel Henderson, Cyrus Kouandjio, John Miller, Ronald Patrick, Cyril Richardson, Kraig Urbik, Eric Wood.

Pending free agents: Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Jordan Mills.

What went right: Taking the plunge with Incognito.

The financial risk was, relatively speaking, negligible. The Bills signed Incognito to only a one-year contract worth $1.45 million and included a modest signing bonus of $100,000. Even with incentives that would add $850,000 to his salary, the Bills were on the hook for very little for a player in his ninth NFL season.

The structure of the deal made perfect sense. After all, Incognito had not played a game since Oct. 31, 2013, his last before the Dolphins suspended him on Nov. 3 of that year for misconduct related to his role in the treatment of fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who had left the team a week earlier. Even after the suspension was lifted three months later, Incognito would still spend a full season on the outside looking in.

How ready would he be, if at all, to play at the level of an NFL starter? How would he be viewed by his mostly new teammates (Incognito did have a brief stint with the Bills in 2009 after being released by the St. Louis Rams)? How would he behave?

It couldn’t have turned out better, for Incognito or the Bills. Known for his intense workout regimen geared to enhance his longevity as a player, the 32-year-old Incognito arrived at training camp in the best shape of his life and performed that way. He used his 6-foot-3, 319-pound frame to consistently get the better of opponents with a combination of tremendous power and athleticism. Some of the Bills’ most effective running plays came when Incognito pulled from his left guard spot and worked in concert with a tight end.

Many NFL observers thought he would be a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl, but he was selected as an alternate.

The second-most impactful member of the Bills’ offensive line was Glenn, who had by far his best season since joining the team as a second-round draft pick from Georgia in 2012. The left tackle was exceptional in pass protection and did a nice job blocking for the run.

Glenn also proved to be an inspiration to his teammates. Late in the season, when the Bills announced Glenn was their winner of the Ed Block Courage Award, it was revealed that he has been playing with one kidney since the other was surgically removed before the 2014 season.

After struggling through large portions of the ’14 campaign, Wood rebounded with one of the better of his seven NFL seasons. The new blocking scheme significantly increased his responsibilities to make proper calls and adjustments to keep everyone on the same page. It took some adjusting at first, but Wood steadily improved as the season progressed and became the Bills’ other Pro Bowl alternate from the offensive line.

Miller, a third-round draft pick from Louisville, was solid at right guard. When he was healthy, he played well, showing from the start of off-season workouts that his knowledge of how to play his position and offensive line in the NFL far exceeded the norm for a 22-year-old rookie.

What went wrong: Things got off to a bad start with this group when the team suspended newly acquired offensive line coach Aaron Kromer for six games for allegedly punching a teenage boy during an altercation in July, right before the start of training camp. Former assistant offensive line coach Kurt Anderson did his best as a replacement, but the Bills would miss Kromer’s elevated experience and instruction for nearly half the season.

The biggest problem here was a lack of depth. The Bills saw a bit of a decline when Urbik took over for Miller. And the play at right tackle was uneven, at best. Henderson started 10 of the first 11 games, and wound up missing the final five. It was revealed late in the season that he was dealing with Crohn’s Disease and had lost about 20 pounds. Henderson also had to be hospitalized in Philadelphia when the Bills traveled there for their Dec. 13 game against the Eagles.

Mills was a decent replacement, but nothing spectacular. Kouandjio started against Jacksonville, and performed poorly. By the end of the season, his role was reduced to entering games with a tackle-eligible designation to allow Roman to employ his formations that at times put as many as three tight ends on the field.

Incognito had one terrible game: against the Eagles. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox dominated him throughout the game, causing him to commit penalties to make up for the fact that he couldn’t block him.

Miller struggled to stay healthy, missing three games with groin and ankle injuries. He missed a fourth, the Bills’ loss against Jacksonville in London, because of a death in his family. Miller clearly wore down physically in the late stages of the season and hit the proverbial rookie wall. He, too, had his worst game against Cox.

Where they go from here: The highest offseason priority is a no-brainer: re-sign Glenn and Incognito.

Quality left tackles aren’t easy to find, and when you have one, you do everything in your power to keep him. The Bills will likely be forced to overspend for Glenn, but that was the gamble they were willing to take last year when he was somewhat inconsistent and they directed their heaviest offseason spending on signing free-agent tight end Charles Clay and free-agent fullback Jerome Felton, re-structuring the contract of running back LeSean McCoy after acquiring him in a trade, and re-signing defensive end Jerry Hughes.

The Bills also are likely to have to spend big to retain Incognito, although they might be banking on a more limited market for a guard who will be 33 by the start of training camp.

Next: Defensive line.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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