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Richie Incognito could plug Bills' leaky line, with a risk

2/7/2015



Weeks after the sudden departure of Doug Marrone and couldn't-miss-it introduction of Rex Ryan, it seemed as though the Buffalo Bills had reached a lull in their offseason.

Enter Richie Incognito.

Just as quickly as Bills fans could say "circle the wagons," the Bills are back in the national headlines and on the verge of signing the free-agent guard, a source told ESPN.

This is a move that would help the Bills on the field, but it would add a layer of risk in their locker room.

From a football standpoint, it makes sense for the Bills. They're in desperate need of help at guard, and Incognito is a low-cost option to add to the mix. Expect his deal to be short-term and at a fairly low price.

If he can shake off a season and a half away from football and regain his form from 2012, when he made the Pro Bowl, he could plug one gap along an offensive line that was a leaky mess last season.

The arrival of Incognito, 31, would mean that pending free agent Erik Pears -- who started 16 games at right guard last season after starting 16 games at right tackle in 2013 -- is a low priority for the Bills to bring back.

It also would mean that Kraig Urbik, who started the final nine games at left guard last season, could be squeezed out of a starting job and potentially off the team if the Bills deem his $3.675 million cap number too high. By releasing Urbik this spring, they would save $2.275 million off their 2015 cap, or nearly $3 million if the move happened after June 1.

Incognito would also add a layer of insurance for Chris Williams. The former first-round pick, teetering on going bust, signed a surprisingly rich four-year, $13.5 million deal with the Bills last season, only to miss part of the preseason and 13 regular-season games with a lower-back injury. Williams told me in December that he'll be ready to go for next season, but little is ever guaranteed with back injuries in football.

Signing Incognito also means that Cyril Richardson and Cyrus Kouandjio, two of the Bills' offensive-line selections in the 2014 draft, can continue to develop without having to be thrust into starting roles.

But signing Incognito would come with a lot more than just his on-field production. He was named among the NFL's dirtiest players in a poll of players conducted by Sporting News, and that was before a 2013 bullying scandal that altered the careers of Incognito and fellow Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin.

Suspended eight games by the NFL in the midst of the controversy, Incognito's behavior spawned a 144-page report following an NFL investigation. Among the findings was a 2013 voicemail in which Incognito referred to Martin by a racial slur and added, "I'll kill you."

How would Incognito be received in the Bills' locker room? Few of Incognito's teammates remain from his brief stint with the Bills in 2009, but one of them -- center Eric Wood -- is a team captain. To an extent, he defended Incognito back in 2013.

"He gets on me. I get on him. But I can take it. I have respect for Richie; he has respect for me," Wood said at the height of the controversy. "It sounds really weird to outside people, but it's part of the culture. Guys give people a hard time. Especially O-lines that are really close. But you really have to get a feel for guys. As a leader of a football team especially, just a case of misjudgment, I believe."

Wood could be a potential ally for Incognito within the locker room, and there would likely be other teammates who believe Incognito's ribbing was misunderstood or blown out of proportion. Sensitive to how the situation exploded in 2013, it would be reasonable to assume that Incognito would avoid the same sort of actions that nearly ended his NFL career.

Yet it would also be naive to think that Incognito would be a model citizen, or that every player in the Bills' locker room would side with the decision to bring Incognito aboard. If his signing disrupts the cohesion of the locker room, then that would trump the impact he could have on the field.

That's why, in an offseason when the Bills have already added an outspoken head coach, bringing Incognito into the fold could be adding gunpowder to a powder keg.

But if Ryan truly meant that he wanted to "build a bully" in Buffalo, then he's got his guy.