So, is it the chicken or the egg? Is it Beer or liquor? Is it Tom Golisano or Larry Quinn? Those are some of the endless debates that we have always tried to figure out. Well, we can add whether it’s the offensive lineman or the quarterback that makes pass protection work. If you walk up to a football fan and say that the Bills need to draft an offensive tackle in the first round, that person has every right to say that the New Orleans Saints starting left tackle was a converted tight end. I’m sure Drew Brees’ name will be brought up as the reason for why the offensive line hardly ever gave up sacks.
Of course, the fan that’s all about name recognition on the O-line, can talk about how great the Jets front line of all-pros played last year. You can even make the case that coaching philosophy has something to do with pass protection. People always give credit to Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs for developing their zone blocking technique which helped Terrell Davis get over 2,000 yards in 1998. Frankly, besides Mark Schlereth (because of being on ESPN), I couldn’t even tell you who were the best lineman in Denver. It was just all about the system.
As for the Bills offensive line, the unit didn’t have anything close to the best of all three worlds with their play. Too many times last year we saw quarterbacks getting drilled and running backs getting hit 2-3 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Enter Cornell Green…Yeah, I’m not feeling that. Um, enter…Trent Edwards being a 4th year NFL quarterback…didn’t think so. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, here enters, Ed Wang… (Insert Crickets). Hmmmm…Chan Gailey’s offensive coaching philosophy will help the line gel?…Okay, lets go with that. Frankly, Gailey’s playbook is really the only hope we have for the offensive line to get it together. Gailey does have experience with working with some all-time great offensive lineman. He’s coached guys like Dermontti Dawson and Larry Allen.
Even when Gailey didn’t have the talent around him, he was still able to get the most out of his offensive line. While in Miami, Gailey’s offensive line gave up just 52 sacks in two years and only had one pro bowler on the unit (Center Tim Ruddy). On the other hand, the Bills gave up 46 sacks, and that was just last year. Say what you will about Jason Peters and Derrick Dockery, but the Bills missed their experience last year. Remember, with those two players on the offensive line, the Bill gave up 38 sacks in 2008 and 26 sacks in 2007. Those aren’t great numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but they sure were better than last year’s performance.
You have to wonder what the Bills were thinking in starting three offensive lineman that had never taken an NFL snap, and then moved their most experienced player (Brad Butler) from guard to right tackle. It really shouldn’t shock anyone that the Bills pass protection hit rock bottom. Hell, the team had the most inexperienced offensive line to start an NFL season in the last 8 years!
You think all of this is bad? I haven’t even gotten to the injuries from last year and how the team was starting offensive lineman from the Green Bay Packers practice squad. At last check, the Bills started 11 different offensive lineman last year, to go along with eight different line combinations. In other words, things can’t possibly get any worse. Then again, we said that after we endured the Tutan Reyes and Mike Gandy era.
Left Tackle-7th round choice in the 2008 Draft
I couldn’t help but laugh at how some Bills fans were under the impression that Demetrius Bell was going to be the next Jason Peters; all because the kid was a 7th round pick and was being touted as a “pure athlete.” Sorry kids, but you can’t find too many pro bowl left tackles on the streets. Without question, the Bills biggest weakness on the offensive line are their tackles. As a starter last year, Bell had a really rough time. The guy had the trifecta going for him while getting penalties, getting hurt, or getting Trent Edwards killed. For an offensive lineman, those are three things that you don’t want to have on your resume. Hell, if it wasn’t for Bell getting hurt, he probably would have led the league in sacks allowed and penalties committed (Gave up five sacks and eight penalties in just 8 games). I can recall some games where the guy lined up two yards off the line of scrimage. Not good.
Sure, Bell doesn’t have that much experience, as he’s considered to be extremely “raw.” God, I hate when I hear that word, because it gives a team an excuse to keep the guy around longer to see if he can play or not. Bell has to stay healthy if he wants to make it to year three as a starter. Sorry, but you can’t rely on a player, who plays arguably the most important position on the football team, to stay on the field for half of his games (Unless you are talking about the Sabres and Tim Connolly).
Right Tackle- 1999 undrafted free agent
So, what is the team’s solution in trying to offset the other starting left tackle who gives up a ton of sacks and penalties? You give a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal to a player who was flagged 12 times and gave up six sacks last year. Yup, that’s Cornell Green, another former Oakland Raider. I haven’t watched many Raiders games over the years (thank god!), but from what I’ve read about him, he’s a pretty decent run blocker, but doesn’t play well in pass protection.
If you take a closer look (well, you don’t have a choice because we are going there) a couple of other things going for Green is that he’s athletic for a guy his size and can play effectively when running plays are designed for the tackle to pull or trap. On the negative front, the guy doesn’t play physical football and can be pushed around pretty easily. In all honesty, the guy has to be better than the right tackles from the Green Bay Packers practice squad.
Guard- 1st round choice in the 2009 NFL Draft
I don’t know about you, but it seems like Eric Wood is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Buffalo. If you look at the guy’s intangibles (or is it tangibles?), he has Buffalo written all over him. He’s a blue-collar type player, who plays with a nasty edge and can fire up a fan base with his, um…talkative ways (Just ask Aaron Maybin). Plus, for a guy his age, he’s been talking a lot about being one of the leaders on this team, which tells me he’s growing up rather quickly.
He’s also the most talented player on the unit. He was having a nice rookie year until he had one of the most gruesome injuries you’ll ever see. I’m sure you have all seen the clip on youtube and it’s just a huge testament to his determination to participate in training camp.
Wood brings it all to the offensive line, with a very nice mix of size, mobility, technique, and aggressiveness. Wood anchors the interior part of the line, which really is the nucleus of this group (Mainly because the tackles can’t even amount to an atom). Of course, the big question going into this season for Wood is whether he’s going to be at 100%. Knowing Wood, he probably won’t tell us if he is hurt or not.
Guard- 2nd round choice in the 2009 NFL Draft
Andy Levitre was one of the Bills two 2nd round choices in 2009 and played very well for rookie. Levitre did make the all-rookie team, which is a great accomplishment considering that the Bills had to move him to tackle at one point. Plus, it’s not like he was surrounded by superior talent.
Unlike Wood, Levitre’s size isn’t his greatest strength (mainly because he has short arms), but he’s a versatile lineman that can battle and get the most out of his shortcomings. The guy is going to be a player for years to come.
Center- 5th round choice in the 2005 NFL Draft
When the news broke that the Bills signed a free agent from the Carolina Panthers last year, you could probably hear the collective yawn from Bills fans. Well, Geoff Hangartner isn’t Melvin Fowler. The guy can play. Sure, he’s not a superstar by any stretch, but he’s the best center the Bills have had since Kent Hull. I assure you, it’s more of an indictment towards the Bills centers after Hull retired.
Hangartner plays a little like Levitre, in that they both have a nice mix of size and intensity. They can also play multiple positions and really give the Bills a nice interior presence.
What does it all mean?
If there’s one preview that I hate writing about, it’s the Bills offensive line. It’s just very tough for me to sit at home and give a grade to each player on the line. Mainly, because you don’t know if the reasoning for a sack is on the quarterback or the play-calling. The same goes into figuring out if there are holes for the running back to break through or is it just the runner not being able to see the lanes.
Bottom line: The Bills line has been nothing short of a disaster. Hell, you can go back to the late 90’s to see where their problems originally started. You can place the blame on Rob Johnson, Mike Williams, Turk Schonert and a number of other people, but even when the names are changing, the problem still remains the same. I just don’t think the Bills as an organization value the offensive line like they should. Sorry, but you can’t have your starting left tackle be a guy that is nothing more than a project. Again, the Bills should have just paid Jason Peters what he wanted because you can’t find tackles like him on the streets.
As for the Bills line this year, the biggest key for them is to stay healthy. I don’t even want to write up scouting reports on their backups. If you want to look at a silver lining for this group, it’s the how the unit really didn’t get on the field together that much last year.
Before injuries derailed the line, they actually didn’t look that bad against the Patriots and Bucs. The only gave up a couple of sacks in each game and Fred Jackson was leading the league in total yards. Then week 3 came and it all went downhill from there. Brad Butler was lost for the season and then retired to join a life of politics. Then Eric Wood got hurt against Jacksonville and it seemed like Demetrius Bell would get hurt every other game.
Sorry, but you can’t build chemistry on the line if an I.V. is stuck in your arm while laying on a hospital bed. So, you could make the case that we just haven’t seen what these guys can do collectively as a group. Like I said earlier, you can’t discount Chan Gailey’s coaching methods in trying to get the unit to gel. Plus, Gailey is all about the short passing gaming, which of course means more 3-step drops. Of course, you still have Trent Edwards back there, which may hamper Gailey’s coaching methods.
Anyways, I think the Bills line is going to do much better in opening up holes for their running backs, due in large part to coaching and not having a bunch of rookie starters. However, I still think the combination of Trent Edwards and our starting tackles are going to be a recipe for disaster in pass protection. I’m hoping the interior line will take another step forward in being the backbone of the unit and then hopefully one day, the Bills will believe in paying for an elite left tackle.
Overall, I think the line will be better than last year’s disaster, but they have to stay healthy or it’s going to be another long season of wondering, “Why doesn’t this team do something about the line?”