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Inside the Bills: Ryan Groy ready if called on again to replace Eric Wood

Jay Skurski

It become a running joke during the season.

Week after week, News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan and I were asked in our respective mailbags why Ryan Groy wasn’t being given a chance to crack the starting lineup for the Buffalo Bills. We got the question so much, we ran out of ways to answer it.

Groy’s seven-game stint as a starter for the Bills in 2016 clearly left a favorable impression among the team’s fans. The Bills also liked what he did enough to match a contract offer Groy received from the Los Angeles Rams as a restricted free agent last offseason.

With Eric Wood taking every snap at center in 2017, however, Groy never did get that chance to be a starter. Now, though, with the unfortunate news that Wood’s career is over because of a neck injury, Groy could be the man to replace him.

“I feel for him, I really do,” Groy said Saturday of Wood, who is a close friend. “He's such a great person, and he means so much to the community and the team. It's unfortunate the way that it happened, but in the other sense, I'm glad that they found it before something terrible happened.”

Eric Wood confirms career-ending neck injury, thanks community

Groy, 27, signed a two-year, $5 million offer sheet from the Rams last year after he performed admirably over the final seven games of 2016, stepping into the starting lineup after Wood suffered a broken leg on Monday Night Football against Seattle. Among centers who played at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps in 2016, Groy ranked 15th in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. The analytics website had him with just two quarterback hits allowed, and no sacks, in 539 snaps. PFF named Groy the Bills’ “secret superstar” in July. Groy did not take a penalty during his extended stretch as a starter, and has been flagged just once in 36 career games with the Bills.

Groy credited Wood with helping him to prepare when his time as the starter arrived.

“A lot of it was just how he went about his business day in and day out,” Groy said. “I started learning right away from Eric and Richie Incognito and trying to absorb as much as possible. That helped. When I went in and played, a lot of the things that I learned from him, came out.”

Despite his strong play at the end of 2016, Gory never did get a chance to start in 2017, which was a head-scratcher for those who watched both John Miller and Vlad Ducasse struggle at times at right guard.

“Ryan does some good things,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said in October when asked if Groy might become a part of the competition with Miller and Ducasse. "The important part for Ryan is that he does back up Eric as well at the center position, so Ryan does give us some flexibility both at center and as well as at guard.”

Groy took just 54 offensive snaps in 2017, mostly as a sixth offensive linemen in "heavy" packages. Dating to his college days at Wisconsin, he's shown good versatility. While with the Badgers, the 6-foot-5, 320-pounder appeared in a school-record 54 games with 33 starts – 28 at left guard, two at left tackle, one at center and two at fullback as a redshirt freshman.

Bills fans can certainly appreciate Groy’s path to the NFL. An undrafted free agent who signed with the Chicago Bears in 2014, he earned a call-up to the active roster after starting the year on the practice squad and eventually started three games as a rookie. The following year, he was traded to New England during training camp but released by the Patriots with an injury settlement before the regular season. He then joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad before the Bills signed him to their 53-man roster on Nov. 25, 2015.

Along the way, he dealt with personal tragedy when his father, Doug, was killed in a snowmobile accident in February 2015. Before he made his first start with the Bills, Groy spoke to The Buffalo News about the influence his father had on him, including a shared love of the outdoors.

“They say it gets better with time,” he said, “but I don’t necessarily know if that’s it. I think you get used to it. You find other shoulders to lean on, but that pain of missing someone never really goes away.”

Groy made the most of his opportunity when called upon once, and while he’s ready to do it again if called upon, he instead wanted to keep the focus on his good friend.

“I’ve proved to myself and other people that I can play in this league, and that I can be a starter,” he said. “You don't wish injury against anybody, but if somebody does get hurt, you have to have somebody come in and play. I was ready for that role. But this is a different circumstance. This is Eric's time. Right now, I'm just praying for him and his family. My time will come when it's ready, but right now it's all about him.

“For what he's meant to the community and the team as a leader, the outpouring of support, you don't see that very often.”

Incognito, McCoy react at Pro Bowl

Wood had hoped to join Incognito and running back LeSean McCoy at the Pro Bowl before making his retirement announcement, but was not chosen as an injury replacement.

Speaking at the game to the Bills’ official website, both Incognito and McCoy said Wood was instrumental in helping them adjust after coming to Buffalo.

“He’s had a lot to do with my career, especially lately in Buffalo when I found out I was going to go for the interview with the Pegulas, E-Wood was one of the first people I told,” Incognito said. “He’s been instrumental in me coming back in the league and re-establishing myself. E-Wood provided that friendly face in the locker room and that cover for me to be myself. He’s really instrumental in all my success I’ve had the last couple years, just having a buddy to talk to. I really can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a great teammate, he’s a great leader, he’s a great person. I think he’s done great with his platform as being an athlete and trying to help people.”

Hard to see now, but timing of Wood's exit from Bills has potential bright spot

Incognito said he has talked with Wood since his announcement was made, and that he’s “been positive about it.”

“Typical E-Wood, he’s put his positive spin on it already,” he said. “He’s Buffalo through and through. Since he’s got there, he’s tried to help as many people as he can in the community In Buffalo, in Louisville. All over. He’s got such a big heart and he really does well to help people.”

McCoy in the past has called Wood the most important player on the Buffalo offense.

“I was hurt when I heard the news about Eric,” the running back said. “I haven’t got a chance to talk to him yet. I want to really spend some time with him and talk to him. I’m going to go up to Buffalo and just check him out. He’s a good friend of mine. Since I got to Buffalo, he’s one of the guys that I really respect. When I got the news that I was going to Buffalo, I was happy that he was there and that I would get a chance to play with him. Not only is he a good player, but he’s a good person.”

Wood has helped McCoy lead the NFL in rushing over his three years in Buffalo.

“I would always tell him that hey, ‘you make this offense go.’ He’s so smart, so intelligent. Makes the right calls,” McCoy said. “He’s the guy that sets the example. Now that he won’t be around, that’s tough for me. He’s a guy I look forward to going to work with. It’s hard to replace a guy like Eric Wood.”

Bills’ exec to interview with Panthers

The Buffalo Bills have already lost one member of their front office this offseason when Brian Gaine left to become the general manager of the Houston Texans.

Now, they’re at risk of losing another.

According to a report Saturday from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the Carolina Panthers plan to interview Bills assistant director of college scouting Lake Dawson for their general manager opening. Dawson previously interviewed for the same position in 2013, as well as for GM openings in Miami (2014), Tampa Bay (2014) and Chicago (2015).

Dawson, 46, has 23 years of NFL experience, including six years as a wide receiver and 17 in scouting. He spent a year as a national scout for the Browns before coming to Buffalo, and prior to that spent nine years in Tennessee’s front office, working as the director of pro personnel, vice president of football operations and vice president of player personnel.

“He’s had a heck of a career,” Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said of Dawson when he was hired last May. “To have a guy with his experience and leadership … it’s a strong addition.”

Pelissero reported that current Panthers interim GM Marty Hurney, Texans assistant GM Jimmy Raye III and possibly Titans director of player personnel Ryan Cowden are also candidates.

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