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Injuries so far spoiling Bills' grand offensive line plans

Vic Carucci

PITTSFORD – The Buffalo Bills pretty much devoted the offseason and a sizable chunk of cash to trying to improve their offensive line.

It was sound, sensible strategy given the unit's horrific showing last year. New center. New guards. New tackles. A facelift of mammoth proportions that figured to result in a minimum of four new starters.

At the moment, though, the plan has a lot in common with a smoldering pile of rubble.

Getting all of those new faces to develop the chemistry and continuity so vital to an O-line's success was going to be hard enough under ideal circumstances. Now that the group has been ravaged by injuries suffered during training camp at St. John Fisher College, the Bills are struggling simply to put five healthy bodies in front of quarterback Josh Allen, let alone upgrade his protection and the ability to open holes for the running game.

"It's frustrating," General Manager Brandon Beane said Monday. "Candidly, it is."

Beane had the vision of how this would all play out. He and his player personnel staff did the digging and studying to find what they believed were the best pieces available. They calculated the investment, how the finances would fit within the salary cap and how the playing styles and personalities would fit within the team, and felt good about the half-dozen free-agent signings for the front side of their offense.

And perhaps the most frustrating part of all is that there's no one to blame for what has happened.

"It's nobody's fault," Beane said. "Nobody came in here out of shape. That would be disheartening, if somebody came in out of shape and (an injury) is because of it. The guys have worked hard. It's just the unfortunate part, it happens. And sometimes it happens at the same position group.

"You do try and be smart with the reps and really tracking these guys on GPS and load (management). But at the end of day, you still got to play football, and it's a physical sport."

The biggest blow came at center, where the Bills did their biggest spending. Mitch Morse, who signed a $44.5 million contract that made him the NFL's highest-paid player at his position, remains sidelined while in concussion protocol.

The injury list includes guards Jon Feliciano (shoulder) and Spencer Long (knee), who had been in the starting rotation in practice. Meanwhile, reserve tackle LaAdrian Waddle is expected to be lost for the season after suffering a torn quad.

Russell Bodine, who was viewed as mainly auditioning for a chance with another team, finds himself back in the starting job he held last season. On Monday, he anchored a line that had incumbent Dion Dawkins at left tackle, free agent Quinton Spain at left guard, second-round draft pick Cody Ford at right guard (after working at tackle) and free agent Ty Nsekhe at right tackle.

That isn't the exact starting five the Bills were hoping to field. It's also one of a variety of combinations since camp began on July 25.

The inability to keep the same line together for any extended stretch has thwarted efforts to build cohesion.

"That’s the challenge, it's continuity," coach Sean McDermott said. "That has been the challenge (since) back in the spring, but we will find a way. That’s what we are here for, and all we can do is build continuity with the guys that we have and are out there."

How dire is the situation?

The Bills' search for at least short-term replacements for the walking wounded has them looking at players who have recently retired or who departed other teams via injury settlements.

"With 90-man rosters, it gets thin very quick," Beane said. "A lot of times, the guys that are out there are done playing or they're still trying to recover from an injury and they're not ready to go yet. So it's hard, it's frustrating, but that's the business.

"Thirty-one other teams deal with it. There's no excuse. We still have to go out there and execute on Thursday. And whatever we do well, we've got to keep improving and whatever we do wrong, we've got to fix it. We have to deal with adversity. And this is adversity that you can face at any point in the season."

The linemen who are well enough to practice are locked into the no-excuse mantra.

"We're just a bunch of guys that focus on what we can control," Dawkins said. "Stuff happens, and we just have to put our helmets on and keep going forward."

He doesn't always know who will be lining up next to him, so he must make adjustments. That has happened frequently in the relatively short time the Bills have been here.

The alterations in Dawkins' game depend on who playing left guard.

"How many practices has he had? What has he seen?" Dawkins said. "If it's a younger guy, I just know that, 'All right, for a couple things, I just have to be on point because an older guy would have picked it up just a little bit quicker.' "

However, all chemistry building doesn't necessarily have to be done on the field. Some of it can happen in the cafeteria. McDermott has a rule that all players must place their cellphones in a basket when they check in for a meal. The idea is to promote more face-to-face conversation between teammates so that they can get to know each other a little bit better. That has been especially helpful to the offensive linemen.

For instance, Spain found out that Dawkins is going to become a father soon, and heard about his career since joining the Bills in 2017 as a second-round draft pick from Temple. Dawkins learned that Spain has a 5-year-old son, in addition to other parts of his personal and professional background.

"That can carry you a long way, that's gaining trust," Spain said. "If I'm out there and Dion knows everything about me and we've got that connection, he knows we're playing for the same thing. He knows he'll protect me and I'll protect him."

For members of the Bills' hierarchy, there's the need to show confidence in the linemen who are playing. As McDermott pointed out, "We can’t evaluate the combinations that aren’t out there because those are hypothetical at this point and that’s not healthy."

At the same time, they have to monitor the status of those that are injured.

It can be a delicate balance.

"First of all, we stay in constant contact with the medical people," Beane said. "Where are these guys at and their rehab? When can we get them back? What can we do with them? Obviously, we're not going to be able to probably roll out everybody Week 1 of preseason, the five or six or seven, whatever number that was going to play with that first group.

"But it's an opportunity. Who's ready for it and who's not? Who are some of those guys on the second group that get up there? It is open competition."

Maybe a little more open than the Bills had hoped.

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