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Bills Training Camp Question 9: Will O-line take giant leap backward?

This is the ninth in a series on 10 key questions facing the Bills entering training camp.

It happened so quickly, so abruptly, there was no way the Bills could have been fully prepared for the back-to-back massive blows to their offensive line.

Gut punch No. 1: Eric Wood's postseason physical in January shows a chronic neck issue had become severe enough that he no longer would be medically cleared to play.

Gut punch No. 2: Richie Incognito, in a delayed response to a $1.7 million pay cut he at first publicly expressed no problem accepting, informs the Bills in April he's retiring before getting what he really wanted – his release in hopes of playing elsewhere.

In a span of four months, the Bills suddenly found themselves minus two decades of NFL experience they were counting on for this season. That doesn't count the March trade that sent veteran left tackle Cordy Glenn to the Cincinnati Bengals, because it reflected the team's understandable faith they have a viable replacement in 2017 second-round draft pick Dion Dawkins.

Although there are plenty of candidates to replace Wood at center and Incognito at left guard, calling them actual solutions to a pair of potentially huge problems would be stretch, at least for the time being.

Sure, Ryan Groy was a solid starter at center after Wood missed the final seven games of the 2016 season with a broken leg. Sure, free-agent acquisition Russell Bodine was the Bengals' starting center the past four seasons. And, sure, Groy is capable of stepping in at either guard spot as well.

Nevertheless, when it came to their offensive line, the Bills' offseason practices functioned as a laboratory. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and offensive line coach Juan Castillo played the part of scientists, mixing and matching personnel through non-contact organized team activity and mandatory minicamp workouts.

Groy and Bodine alternated as the No. 1 center, and there was no clear-cut indication which one has the edge entering training camp. Vlad Ducasse, the starter at right guard for most of last season, spent OTA and mandatory minicamp sessions at left guard, where he has rarely played during eight NFL seasons. John Miller, who Ducasse replaced at right guard in 2017, is still competing to win his starting job back and is being pushed by fifth-round draft pick Wyatt Teller. Free-agent signee Marshall Newhouse spent time at every line spot except center during offseason workouts.

Expect to see more of the same through training camp and the preseason. But expecting someone from this bunch to make anyone forget about Wood or Incognito figures to be expecting far too much.

Wood was one of the NFL's more highly accomplished centers. No one on the roster has yet to demonstrate he is close to matching Wood's talent, knowledge of the position, or instincts. His absence also creates a significant leadership void.

Incognito was one of the league's top guards and arguably the Bills' best offensive lineman for most of the three seasons since he joined the team after a one-and-a-half year absence from the game because of his involvement in a bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins. Still, knowing he would turn 35 earlier this month, the Bills' decision-makers saw no point in tying up more than the absolute minimum salary necessary to see if they could squeeze one more solid year out of him. Ultimately, that wasn't sufficient incentive for Incognito to stick around, especially with a major question at quarterback.

Training Camp Question 7: Can Trent Murphy pick up where he left off in 2016?

Newhouse sees no point in attempting to put a happy face on the situation. Losing Wood and Incognito is a "big deal" and the line is undergoing a major transition.

"But a lot of times," Newhouse said, "what people don't realize is that those little, bitty opportunities in the league happen a lot and in situations like this, it can be the stepping stone to a couple of our guys getting looks that may not have gotten looks, that may not have gotten chances to show you what they really can do because they were behind a guy, Pro Bowlers like Richie and Eric.

"I think what is going to ease this transition and still give us a chance to compete and win is that we've got a group of guys, a room of guys, who have bought into Coach Castillo, who work and who've obviously got the skill to play at a high level in the NFL. You can't just take a guy off the street and do this, but these guys are capable. And along with that capability is the work ethic, the being here early, the staying here late, having a coach like Juan who believes in you and gets you in the right position to win and be successful."

Bills Training Camp Question No. 8: Who takes over the kick return jobs?

 

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