The battle to determine the Buffalo Bills' starter at right guard is going right down to the very end of the preseason.
Incumbent John Miller and newcomer Vlad Ducasse will carry on the fight through Thursday night's preseason-finale against the Detroit Lions at New Era Field. Final preseason games are usually left to mainly fringe players to simply get the team through without having to expose first- and second-stringers to potential injury with the start of the season fast approaching.
But the Bills' coaches apparently need to see more of Miller and Ducasse in a game that doesn't count before making a decision on which one will be a part of the starting lineup for the Sept. 10 season-opener against the New York Jets.
"That is still an open competition," coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday.
The differences between the two are significant, beginning with their size. Miller is 6-foot-2 and weighs 303 pounds, while Ducasse is 6-5 and weights 329 pounds.
Miller is stronger (something Ducasse readily admits) and more athletic, but Ducasse is harder to move.
Miller is entering his third NFL season and is learning a new offense and a new blocking scheme. Ducasse is beginning his eighth year in the league and has greater familiarity with the offense and the blocking assignments, having worked with Bills offensive line coach Juan Castillo last season when both were with the Baltimore Ravens.
"Vlad's obviously got a leg up on John, just knowing the system and being comfortable with it and knowing all of what Coach Castillo's techniques are," veteran left guard Richie Incognito said. "John's the young, hungry guy who's started since he's been here (arriving as a third-round pick from Louisville in 2015). So he's fighting for his life right now, and those two guys are still battling it out.
"Competition brings out the best in everybody, so we're going to get the best right guard out of this that we possibly could."
Miller is taking a philosophical approach to the challenge of keeping his job. He knows that proving himself to a new set of decision-makers who have no attachment to him isn't easy. But he also knows that fretting about what they're thinking is a waste of time.
If Miller were to not remain a starter, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that the Bills do to him what they've done to so many other players drafted by former General Manager Doug Whaley and send him picking either via trade or waivers. All NFL teams must reduce their rosters to the final regular-season total of 53 by Saturday.
"All I can control is what I control, go out there and put my best foot forward and continue grinding all throughout practice, all throughout camp and the preseason," Miller said. "Just going out there and put my best work on film."
He said he doesn't believe is incumbent status means anything, adding, "It's open competition until those guys make a decision."
"We're just pushing each other," Ducasse said. "Every day we're going at it, we work at what we need to work on together and, like Coach said, we're still competing. And it just puts pressure on us to go out there and put the best of us out there."
Ducasse has seen steady improvement in his game since the start of training camp last month. Besides addressing the details of his craft, he also has focused on fulfilling the fundamental mandate Castillo gives to his position group on a daily basis: "Win your one-on-one battle!"
"There's still a lot of stuff that I need to fix," Ducasse said. "But every week, I feel like I got better."
Even after the Bills pick a starter, Ducasse feels the work will only be beginning for him or Miller. The biggest mistake either can make is to feel a sense of relief or, worse, complacency.
In the NFL, open competition never really closes.
"It's just like that all around the league," Ducasse said. "Just because you're the starter doesn't mean you can sleep. 'Oh, I've got my spot now.' No, you've got to keep pushing."