This is the eighth in a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins Thursday at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
One competition was expected along the right side of the Buffalo Bills' offensive line at training camp.
Two? Well that's a little bit of a surprise.
When the Buffalo Bills traded up into the second round to draft Temple's Dion Dawkins, it was assumed he would challenge incumbent Jordan Mills for the starting job at right tackle. That competition never really materialized during the spring because Dawkins played on the left side in place of the injured Cordy Glenn. With Glenn expected to be ready when training camp starts Thursday at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, Dawkins is expected to move back to the right side to start the competition with Mills.
At the same time, another battle is brewing. Veteran Vlad Ducasse, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, got some snaps with the starters at right guard during the spring in place of incumbent John Miller, a third-year veteran who has started all 28 games in which he's appeared in over his first two seasons.
Coach Sean McDermott has pushed the idea that every spot on the roster is up for grabs, and possibly making two changes in the starting lineup along an offensive line that jelled so well in 2016 would follow through on that.
"Nothing is promised to anyone," McDermott said earlier this offseason. "We're going to compete every day. I've got to earn my spot. You guys have heard me say that before."
It's fair to expect Miller and Mills to line up with the starters Thursday when practice starts. Each of them started all 16 games in 2016, helping the Bills lead the NFL in rushing for the second straight year. Analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked the Bills' offensive line No. 10 in the league last month, while Football Outsiders' wasn't quite as positive, ranking the Bills 16th in run blocking in 2016, but a woeful 31st in pass protection.
On the surface, Football Outsiders' run-blocking grade may appear low. The Bills did lead the league in rushing, after all. But according to the website's advanced statistics, Buffalo led the NFL in "second level" yards and finished No. 2 in "open field" yardage. That is yardage gained between 5-10 yards (second level) and 10-plus yards (open field) beyond the line of scrimmage. The longer the run, the less responsibility an offensive line is given in the website's analysis.
All of which is to say, there is room for improvement.
The Bills wouldn't have moved up into the second round to draft Dawkins if they didn't think he could challenge for a starting job in short order. Mills was the Bills' lowest-graded offensive lineman in 2016, according to PFF. He allowed seven sacks and was called for four holding penalties.
McDermott, however, talked about Mills' performance in the spring, at least giving the illusion that there will be a true competition.
"He's going to be tough for a rookie to beat out, because he's going to do everything right," center Eric Wood said last month. "And someone's going to have to truly outplay him to beat him out, because he's just so dependable on a day-to-day basis. And that often is overlooked on Sundays. Ultimately, we're only judged by what we do on Sundays, but on the day-to-day grind of a training camp, someone, to beat him out, is going to have to be on their stuff every day."
The same can be said at right guard, where Miller seemed to make big strides in his second season. After going through a difficult rookie season that involved both injuries and the tragic loss of his mother, the former third-round draft pick showed enough improvement to lead most people to believe that he would be the starter in 2017. While PFF charged Miller with 33 pressures allowed, which was the seventh most at his position, he ranked 24th as a run blocker, up from No. 78 (out of 82) in 2016.
Ducasse, though, has a history with new Bills offensive line coach Juan Castillo, playing for him last year in Baltimore. Will that familiarity be enough to earn him a starting job? At least in the spring, it started a competition that many thought wouldn't take place.