This is the fifth of a series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 26 start of training camp.
After being blindsided by the sudden offseason departures of Eric Wood and Richie Incognito, the Buffalo Bills are desperately searching for a viable blueprint to reconstruct their offensive line.
When the pre-training camp hiatus began after the final mandatory minicamp practice on June 14, the Bills were no closer to knowing what their starting five will look like for the beginning of the regular season than they were when they learned they would be without Wood and Incognito.
The exits were as bizarre as they were jarring. Last August, the Bills extended Wood's contract, fully believing he would be with them beyond last season. But after reportedly dealing with chronic neck problems, Wood announced in January that a post-season physical examination revealed the condition meant he no longer would be medically cleared to play.
In March, Incognito agreed to a pay cut of about $1.7 million to remain with the Bills. In April, he announced his retirement, citing issues with his liver and kidneys, and the Bills placed him on their reserve/retired list. In May, Incognito told the Bills he wanted to pursue an opportunity with another team and they granted him his release.
Returnees: Dion Dawkins, Vlad Ducasse, Ryan Groy, Josh James, John Miller, Conor McDermott, Jordan Mills, Adam Redmond and De'Ondre Wesley.
Newcomers: Russell Bodine (free agent), Ike Boettger (free agent), Gerhard de Beer (free agent), Marshall Newhouse (free agent), Mo Porter (free agent) and Wyatt Teller (draft).
Departures: Cordy Glenn (trade), Seantrel Henderson (free agent/signed with Houston Texans), Richie Incognito (retirement/free agent) and Eric Wood (retirement).
What the numbers say: The advanced analytics website profootballfocus.com ranked the Bills' O-line as the NFL's seventh best last season, largely on the strength of Incognito's play. It noted that he allowed only three total pressures (with no sacks or hits) through his final nine games after giving up 12 pressures in his first eight. It also pointed out the line had 124 pressures surrendered and was fourth in the league with 1.92 rushing yards before contact.
What to expect: Between Wood and Incognito, the Bills lost a combined 21 years of experience in the middle of their line, plus another six at left tackle after trading Glenn to Cincinnati. Replacing it is a massive chore, as evidenced by all of the tinkering they did – especially with their interior offensive line – through organized team activity and minicamp workouts.
The linemen realize there are plenty of skeptics who see the potential for disaster, but they're showing a confident posture.
"Every year, every team goes through something like this," Ducasse said. "No matter whether you're returning or not, it's competition. I'm returning, but I've still got to prove myself this year."
Dawkins, who replaced the injured Glenn at left tackle last season, and Mills are reasonably solid at tackle. The major questions are what to do about the interior of the line. The Bills used different combinations, putting incumbents and newcomers in various spots, to get a feel for how they function individually and as a unit. However, without contact, it's difficult to form too many firm opinions.
"The interior line play, you can see some of it, but really when the pads come on (that's when you can evaluate more accurately), and that's true for our entire football team," coach Sean McDermott told reporters during the mandatory minicamp.
Bodine, a former Bengal, alternated at center with Groy, who performed well at the position when Wood missed the final seven games of the 2016 season with a broken leg.
Ducasse, who unseated Miller as a starter at right guard last season, spent offseason practices as the starter at left guard, where he has minimal game experience. Groy is also an option there or at right guard, where Miller is fighting to regain his No. 1 status. Teller, a fifth-round pick from Virginia Tech, also could emerge as a factor either before or during the season.
Newhouse could provide some solid depth. He worked at every spot except center as a reserve during the workouts.
"The communication is good between us," Ducasse said. "We're working on technique, we're working hard. We've got a good O-line coach and he's pushing us."
The Bills aren't likely to determine the best starting combination until deep into the preseason, and the situation likely will remain fluid into the regular season.
"Being around the league," McDermott said, "you have to be careful not to make too early of a final evaluation of a player until you really put the pads on, because that's how our game's played."