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Rebuilding Bills' offensive line continues to be a work in progress

Marshall Newhouse makes no attempt to paint a smiley face on the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line.

Sure, he has only been with the team since March 19, but he is entering his ninth season in the NFL and this is his fifth different team. Newhouse has seen enough, heard enough and done enough to know that a rebuild the magnitude of the one the Bills are undertaking up front doesn’t happen easily or quickly. 

With one mandatory minicamp practice left before the Bills go their separate ways until training camp opens July 26, he is too much of a realist to describe the group as being ready to demonstrate it can hold its own among the league’s best.

“That would either be lying to yourself or lying to someone else,” Newhouse said after Wednesday’s session. “There’s a lot of reps that have to go into a line meshing together, so we’re not going to act like it takes no time at all. I might be sitting here, talking to you in late August, still saying that. But I have no doubt in my mind, based on the kind of guys that we have — the humility, the work ethic and the skill level — that we’ll be closer then than we are now.”

The question is, will it be close enough?

Is the line going to be able to open the holes necessary to allow the team’s best hope for offensive success, LeSean McCoy, to remain effective on 30-year-old legs? Can it provide the protection AJ McCarron or Nathan Peterman or Josh Allen — or all three — need to help upgrade one of the NFL’s worst passing offenses? Will it grasp the challenging scheme new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has put in place, with considerably more verbiage in play calls than is found in most places and a far more aggressive approach?

“There’s no playing it safe,” Newhouse said. “Regardless of who’s behind center or on the line, we’re going at people’s necks.”

Noncontact workouts in May and June don’t supply those answers. All they do is serve as reminders of what the Bills don’t have.

And what they don’t have is the combined scrappiness, smarts, talent and experience of Eric Wood at center and Richie Incognito at guard. The two made sudden and, particularly in Incognito’s case (accepted pay cut/retirement/release), strange exits that undeniably left the line in a lurch.

“You don’t discount vets like Eric and Richie and what they bring,” Newhouse said. “I’ve never really met them, but you can’t discount the snaps they’ve had, the experience they’ve had, the toughness, all that stuff. Losing them is a big deal. It would be easy to say it isn’t, but it is.”

“I’m sure they really didn’t foresee any situation where they were losing Richie and Eric in the same season,” said another veteran newcomers, center Russell Bodine. “Obviously, two great players, and that leaves a little kind of some shuffling.”

When speaking with reporters before the first of the three mandatory minicamp practices, Sean McDermott was equally candid. He freely admitted there was only so much he and the rest of the Bills’ decision-makers could judge from watching noncontact workouts, whether voluntary or mandatory, and that interior-line play was at the top of the list of areas from which conclusions are paper thin this time of year.

“The evaluation part of it is a challenge, but we know that going into it,” McDermott said.

In the meantime, Daboll and offensive line coach Juan Castillo concentrate on how the group handles the mental part of the game.

“The worst thing you can do out there is have some MAs (missed assignments),” guard Vlad Ducasse said. “You cannot be offside, jumping the cadence, all that stuff. They’re looking at you like, ‘Are you smart enough to play the game to be a starter? Is he getting his technique from individual to team (drills)?' They’re looking at all the little stuff (in terms of mistakes). At the end of the day, you don’t want the little stuff to become big stuff. For me, it’s just going out there and showing everybody I know what I’m doing, I understand the playbook and I understand the game.”

“You just rally around each other and just all kind of dive into it and just keep striding in the right direction,” said Bodine. “You know you’re going to make mistakes. As a group, we’re going to make mistakes and you just try not to make the same mistakes twice. If you can do that, between this offseason and training camp, you’ll be well on your way to doing what you need to do.”

McCoy is anxiously awaiting those padded practices at St. John Fisher College, as well as the preseason games. It isn’t about his desire to be exposed to hits when there is nothing at stake. It’s about watching how those in front of him perform.

For the past three seasons, McCoy has mostly thrived behind Wood, Incognito and, when he was healthy, left tackle Cordy Glenn, who was traded to Cincinnati earlier in the offseason. McCoy has 10,000-plus career rushing yards. He intends to make a big jump on his way to 12,000 in what will be his 10th season, especially with questions lingering about whether he can stay healthy and/or maintain his dominant form.

“Losing Richie and Eric, I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t matter,” McCoy told reporters Tuesday. “Some people might say that to kind of nip it in the bud and get it out of the way, but those guys are great players. Eric is very smart, intelligent, plays hard, he’s a veteran. He’s been in different scenarios and situations, so having that leadership is big. And we don’t have that because he’s gone.

“People can say what they want about Richie, but he’s one of the best blockers I’ve played with. He’s aggressive, which we all know, and he’s tough, so I’ll miss him, also. A lot of my best runs were behind him.

“That’s one thing. The other part is guys got to step up. … We have some good backups and some guys competing for starting jobs, and that’s what the NFL is all about. I mean, who was Tom Brady before Tom Brady? He got an opportunity, he made the best of it. Everybody who has an opportunity has got to make the best of it.”

They’re trying. Bodine is looking to make the case that he can fill Wood’s substantial cleats. John Miller is looking to rebound and claim his starting guard back. Ryan Groy is hoping he can break out of his reserve interior role. Guard Wyatt Teller is vying to make his mark as a rookie. Dion Dawkins seems solid as Glenn’s permanent replacement, while Jordan Mills is striving to continue as the starter at right tackle.

Since offseason workouts began, Newhouse has lined up at every spot on the line except center, working mainly as a backup. Tackle is his most natural position. He has made last-minute starts at guard, but these have been his first extended stretch of practices there.

Ducasse, who started at right guard last season, has spent the offseason as Incognito's replacement at left guard. He has worked there before, but never over such a prolonged period.

“It’s almost like you’ve got to flip your brain from the right to the left,” Ducasse said. “But the good thing is it’s a new offense, so you kind of have to relearn everything (anyway). That’s the only reason there’s not a struggle with it for me. It’s a new offense, so you’ve got to erase everything you learned last year.”

The Bills’ offensive line has seen plenty of erasing since the end of last year.

If the practices that conclude Thursday have shown anything, it’s that the chore of filling those blank spaces is every bit as daunting as it looked from the start.

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