The good news for the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line is starting center Mitch Morse returned to the lineup Tuesday for the start of the team’s three-day minicamp.
The bad news is the offensive line still is putting the term “mental reps” to the test as spring practices enter their final week.
Morse, the Bills’ prize free-agent acquisition, made his full return after rehabilitating from a core-muscle injury.
But Quinton Spain, signed from Tennessee and a slight favorite to win a starting guard spot, has missed almost all of spring practices due to a broken thumb. Guard Jon Feliciano, a starting contender signed from Oakland, was out Tuesday with a minor injury. Ty Nsekhe, the free agent from Washington expected to battle for a starting tackle job, remained limited with a minor injury.
Other backups who sat out were guard Ike Boettger and center-guard Jeremiah Sirles, while center Russell Bodine and guard Garrett McGhin were limited.
In all, only nine of the 16 linemen on the roster were practicing fully.
“Certainly there’s a challenge there,” said coach Sean McDermott, “with the number of guys we’ve had out, in particular on the offensive side of the ball, trying to build the continuity and get guys acclimated to what we do. Aside from that however, I feel like we’re in a good spot with a lot of work to do yet.”
The Bills are expected to have at least four new starters on the offensive line, and building continuity and chemistry on the front five figures to be a theme for all of training camp, at the least.
“We just look at it as this is like football,” said incumbent starting left tackle Dion Dawkins. “Things happen. Pieces move, and getting hurt is a part of football and a part of the NFL. We just have to focus on what we can and keep practicing like we have been.”
If all these linemen were sitting out at St. John Fisher College in August, it would be a much bigger deal. Spring football arguably is more of a mental exercise for the O-line than any other position because it’s impossible to embrace the physical nature of the position without wearing pads.
“If you look at it like this, we are all basically studying for the big test,” Dawkins said. “We’re studying and studying, and once the pads are on we should not have to overthink and just hit the ground rolling.”
Morse, the 27-year-old signed from Kansas City, said he feels like he’s behind and “trying to knock the rust off.”
“It’s all structurally good down there, which I know is kind of crass to say,” Morse joked, referring to his repaired groin muscle. “Now it’s just getting back into the tempo of things, getting the proper footwork down and technique stuff.”
On the first unit Tuesday, the starting five were, from the left, Dawkins, Vlad Ducasse, Morse, Wyatt Teller and Cody Ford. De’Ondre Wesley saw some snaps in place of Teller.
The second O-line was, left to right, LaAdrian Waddle, Wesley, Spencer Long, Teller and Conor McDermott.
Once everyone is healthy, Long is expected to be a slight favorite to win a starting guard job, along with Spain.
Morse stressed that rotating players at positions on the O-line in the spring is standard operating procedure.
“You’ve got to find out who the five guys are, and it’s an open competition,” Morse said. “So this isn’t bad what the coaches are doing, it’s kind of expected. Get guys cycled in, see where guys naturally play well at and maybe where guys need to focus on. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the season, we’ll want to have our five guys practicing with each other. But that’s what this is for right now, figuring out who’s going to play where and kind of who feels comfortable at what position.”
McDermott said it’s up to injured players to stay mentally sharp.
“We talk a lot about he may not be able to practice but what is he able to do with respect to walk-throughs and install period during practice?” the coach said. “We try to capture as much as we can. Really the ownership then is on the player to get himself up to speed to stay in tune with what we’re doing mentally.”
Morse said he stood next to coaching assistant Ryan Wendell, who played eight seasons for the Patriots, and learned a lot in organized team activity practices.
“I was able to take mental reps for every single group that was out there and be next to one of the assistant coaches, Ryan Wendell, who played many years in the league, and he’s very familiar with this offense,” Morse said. “So he’s been an incredible tool. ... It’s really nice to have that guy in your corner and have the ability to look at the plays and take a step back and kind of look at it as a coach.”
Meanwhile, here were other observations from the first minicamp practice:
- Josh Allen was mostly on target. The Bills’ offense dealt with a lot of blitzing from the defense, so the ball was getting out of the quarterback’s hands quickly. Allen had good ball placement. For what it’s worth (not much), he was 15 of 23 in 11-on-11 work. Two of the incompletions probably would have been sacks. Trent Murphy beat Cody Ford wide on one. Dean Marlowe came free on a blitz on another.
- Allen completed six straight passes on a 44-yard drive to the 6-yard line in a two-minute drill. The defense forced incompletions on second and third downs, and Stephen Hauschka kicked a field goal. Rookie tight end Dawson Knox continues to show good hands. He had two catches for 18 yards on the drive. (Tight end Jason Croom still is out with a sore hamstring.)
- There was one pre-snap penalty by the offense in team work, and the entire offensive unit was forced by McDermott to run to the goal posts at the end of the field and back before the next play.
- There was a lot of rotating at receiver, too, with Cole Beasley, Zay Jones and Robert Foster all sitting out. Starter John Brown caught three balls from Allen. Isaiah McKenzie, Ray-Ray McCloud, Andre Roberts and Duke Williams got a lot of snaps and rotated with the first team on the other side. The prettiest pass of the day arguably was an anticipation throw by Matt Barkley on a crossing route into a tight window to Williams.