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Training camp countdown: 7. Can LeSean McCoy make the Pro Bowl again?

This is the fourth in a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins July 27 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

LeSean McCoy had a simple, but pointed message about how much gas he’s got left in the tank.

“I still feel young,” he said after one of the Buffalo Bills’ spring practices. “Guys out here will tell you it’s been hard to cover me and catch me in drills and practices that we’ve had.”

That’s exactly what defenders had to be saying plenty of times during McCoy’s dynamite 2016 season. He finished sixth in the NFL with 1,257 yards, and was third in the league with 5.4 yards per carry. He also had another 356 yards on 50 catches, making the Pro Bowl for the second straight year with the Bills.

The question entering 2017 is, can he do it again?

McCoy turned 29 last week. Traditionally, that’s approaching fall-off-the-cliff territory for running backs. According to data on the website pro-football-reference.com, there have been 94 times that a running back age 29 or older gains at least 1,000 yards. That number drops to 49 for running backs 30 or older and down to 24 for those 31 and up.

The analytics website numberFire doesn’t see McCoy’s production dipping at all in 2017. It projects him for 1,262 rushing yards with 9.79 touchdowns on 260 attempts, adding 44 receptions for 352 receiving yards and 1.37 scores.

The best-ever season turned in by a running back who was at least 29 was turned in by Barry Sanders in 1997, when he gained a whopping 2,053 yards. McCoy has often spoke of the high regard he has for Sanders, who last week turned 49 years old. Responding to a tweet from the NFL wishing Sanders a happy birthday, McCoy called him the “best ever.”

Comparing anyone to Sanders is doing that player a disservice, but McCoy does have some similar traits. The most important of those, in terms of longevity, is his ability to avoid the big hit.

“I mean, I don't really take a lot of blows," he said. "Since I've been 20 years old in the NFL, that's never going to change in my playing style."

The Bills desperately need that to continue. Outside of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, there may not be a more indispensable player on the roster than McCoy. That’s both because of his elite ability, and a lack of depth behind him. When the team opted not to match Mike Gillislee’s contract offer by the Patriots, they lost one of the more productive backup running backs in the NFL.

That puts the Bills in an interesting position going into 2017. Even though McCoy is feeling good, the smart approach would be to be judicious with his touches. That could mean seeing very little of him in the preseason – which would both preserve his legs and give the coaching staff more time to evaluate the players behind him.

“Obviously, we lost a player but that’s just what happens,” offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. “We’re going to count on Jonathan Williams and Cedric O’Neal and the guys that we’ve got behind them. … We’ve got some guys and we’re going to compete and see what happens. We know LeSean can make some plays, but sometimes he’ll need a break. Those guys are here for a reason. They’re here to compete to get some playing time and some carries.”

Dennison, of course, is required to say that. Of course the Bills are going to want to get McCoy the ball as much as possible.

“Certainly, he’s a great player,” Dennison said. “His success over the years has been great. I’ve always watched him and marveled at the things he could do. He could make people miss, he can create lanes on his own. So, it does make things easier. I think he runs any scheme very well. As long as he’s making yards, I’m happy.”

Dennison won’t be the only one. All of Bills Mafia will be smiling along with him.

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