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Buffalo Bills 2016 X-factors: John Miller

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On an offensive line with a trio of household names, second-year pro John Miller just might be the underrated key of the Bills’ blocking brigade this season.

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John Miller is the least-known, least-expensive and least-accomplished member of the Buffalo Bills offense line... but, in a way, that means he’s the most important.

If he makes a stride in his sophomore NFL season, Buffalo’s offensive line will go from good to dominant.

The Bills are returning all five starters up front for the first time since 1996, and the most noteworthy signings of the offseason were the re-upping of Richie Incognito and the extension of Cordy Glenn, who together formulate one of the best left sides in the NFL.

Buffalo knows what it’s getting from those two, and veteran center Eric Wood played some of his best football in 2015.

A season ago, Miller wasn’t different from many (recent) rookie offensive linemen. In true rookie form, he struggled with defenisve linemen’s counter moves and, more than anything else, lacked anchoring strength.

Coming from a unique and diverse offense at Louisville — he flipped between left guard and right guard in game — for a first-year pro, Miller seemed relatively keen on where he needed to be on pulls and when moving to the second level.

However, the speed and sheer power of NFL defenders often overwhelmed him regardless of where he was asked to block.

In a December feature by Ty Dunne’s of The Buffalo News, Miller hinted at possibly hitting the rookie wall:

“So for me, it's 'What can I do to take care of my body so I don’t miss games?'” Miller said. “It’s been difficult because I don’t want to miss games. When you talk about that rookie wall, it’s something that probably does exist. A college football season, they’re in preparation for their bowl and that’s it. We still have, after this week, two weeks left and possibly a postseason.”

Last year, the right side of the Buffalo’s offensive line was marred by injuries and became a revolving door of scary-to-sometimes-competent play. Miller, Seantrel Henderson, Kraig Urbik and Jordan Mills took turns at either the right guard or right tackle spot. Meanwhile, Glenn, Incognito and Wood each started all 16 games.

Pro Football Focus rolled out their offensive line rankings following the 2015 season, and the Bills came in at No. 9, up from 22nd in 2014. However, Miller was listed as the “dud” for Buffalo:

Dud: It’s never easy for rookies, and John Miller really proved that with a poor year that saw him yield too much pressure and get beat too often in the run game.

Before the Bills’ Week 15 game against Washington on December 20, Dunne outlined the rollercoaster of a season it was for the former Cardinals star who made 47 starts in college, writing “Miller initially suffered a groin injury against Miami (in Week 9), missed one game, started two, missed one due to a death in the family, started three, missed two with the ankle, then started last Sunday.”

At 6’2” and just a shade over 300 pounds with 33 1/4” arms, Miller isn’t the most physically imposing guard in the league yet does boast a bulky upper half and a jolting punch.

In general, I don’t believe players change much stylistically once they’re in the NFL. But the game should slow down for him as an NFL sophomore, and he should be stronger as an NFL sophomore after a full year working with pro trainers.

Miller won’t ever be Larry Allen, but he shouldn’t aspire to be that type of lineman.

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The former third-round pick should attempt to become a nimble technician in Roman’s diverse, lead-block loaded running offense. Instead of his smaller size being a deterrent, he can work to let his quick feet help him win the battle of angles when on the move.

In pass protection, he has to tap into his naturally lower center of gravity to win with leverage at the point of attack.

Yes, more lower-body strength will come in handy there.

With the myriad of blocks Roman asks of his linemen, continuity is vital for the whole group, and especially for a youngster like Miller while he learns how each block depends on the other to spring a big play.

“I think it’s important for an offensive line to stay together and you should try to keep it together as long as you can. The more experience and more time you have to get close with one another and get that cohesiveness down, it makes for better schemes and helps us count on one another for sure,” Miller told Dunne in March of 2016.

Edge-rushers are the headliners of a defensive line, yet talented defensive tackles can be just as, if not more disruptive simply based on their proximity to the football before the snap.

This year, Buffalo is set to face the following stud DTs: Baltimore’s Brandon Williams, New York’s Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, New England’s Malcom Brown, Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald, Miami’s Ndamukong Suh, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, and Jacksonville’s Malik Jackson.

If Miller hasn’t packed on muscle and remains mostly out of control when speeding to linebackers, the Bills offensive line can only be so good this season.

But if he’s used the offseason to add power, understands the unique possibility he has to emerge as an agile, power guard in an old-school scheme and ultimately displays clear improvement in 2016, the Bills’ run game will be incredibly difficult to defend, regardless of its direction.