PITTSFORD, N.Y. (AP) From being labeled an NFL bully to Buffalo Bills starter: guard Richie Incognito took a big step in his return to football following a 15-month hiatus that placed his career in jeopardy.
Three days into training camp, coach Rex Ryan named Incognito the team's starting left guard. Ryan made the announcement Sunday, when he included Incognito along with center Eric Wood and left tackle Cordy Glenn as three offensive linemen he regards as starters.
''One thing's for sure, Richie's a starter,'' Ryan said. ''He looks about as good as any of them. He really does.''
That's a significant step for Incognito, the eighth-year player who signed a one-year contract with Buffalo in February. He had been out of football since midway through the 2013 season, when he was suspended for being a central figure in a bullying scandal that led to offensive lineman Jonathan Martin leaving the Dolphins.
An NFL investigation determined Incognito and two other Dolphins offensive linemen harassed Martin, who played for San Francisco last season. Incognito went unsigned last season despite being reinstated by the NFL.
''It was a long road back,'' Incognito said, when informed of Ryan's comments. ''It was dark times. And it was something at times I didn't think was going to happen. But I've been blessed with an opportunity.''
Incognito thanked Ryan, general manager Doug Whaley, his teammates and new Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula for giving him the opportunity to play. Incognito met personally with the Pegulas before the Bills extended him a contract offer.
''A lot of people laid their neck out on the line for me,'' he said. ''And I just wanted to prove them right.''
Ryan credited Incognito for taking advantage of his second chance, and praised him for reporting to camp in ''great shape.''
''He's everything we thought he'd be,'' Ryan said, noting Incognito was among the team's top players in conditioning tests held on Thursday, a day before camp opened in suburban Rochester. ''I think he's probably along further than I even thought he'd be as far as coming back in shape. It's like he never missed any time.''
The Bills are retooling their offensive line, which was one of the team's weak spots last season. Rookie third-round pick John Miller and Cyril Richardson are competing to start at right guard. Second-year players Seantrel Henderson and Cyrus Kouandjio are competing to start at right tackle.
Though regarded as one of the NFL's dirtiest players before his suspension, Incognito was a reliable contributor on the field. He earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2012, and started all 102 games he appeared in since being selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by St. Louis.
This is Incognito's second stint with the Bills. He played in three games for Buffalo in 2009, when the Bills claimed him after he was waived by the Rams.
The best part of Ryan's announcement for Incognito was that the news came the day Bills players practiced in pads for the first time in camp.
Incognito had not taken the field with pads on since his last game before the suspension: Miami's 22-20 overtime win over Cincinnati on Oct. 31.
''It left a bad taste in my mouth to kind of leave the game like that,'' he said. ''I had a lot of time away, a lot of time to think. And today, I definitely woke up with that in the back of my head.''
NOTES: FB John Connor will miss about a week after hurting his hamstring in practice. ... Ryan was impressed to see OG Miller return to practice a day after hurting his ankle. Miller was expected to miss a few days. ... The Bills have a night practice Monday, before getting their first day off from camp.
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL