Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 2/28/12


You know who doesn't get enough love in the NFL? Offensive linemen. Rarely talked about, seldom highlighted, and often forgotten, the offensive line is the workhorse of each and every football team, responsible for everything from pass protection to creating running lanes. They are responsible for communication at the line of scrimmage, delivery of the ball to the QB, and holding (without holding) the defense at bay. An essential element to every successful franchise, the offensive line makes or breaks every offense in the NFL.

So, of course, for the Buffalo Bills in 2011 it was perhaps the most injured position on the team.  Week after week, players were going down, leading to numerous occurrences of broken protection, finding QB Ryan Fitzpatrick running for his life. Regardless of that, though, Buffalo's patchwork offense line still managed to allow the fewest sacks in the NFL and were ranked 5th in rushing yards per carry, so the talent level still seems relatively high.

Center Eric Wood has become the leader of the line in his three years as a member of the Bills since moving to the position from right guard in 2010. In that first game replacing former starting center Geoff Hangartner, Wood helped the Bills run for a season high 192 yds, solidifying Eric at the spot for 2011. When he stays healthy, he is the best player for the position, but hasn't lasted a whole season to date, starting just 33 of his 48 games (after starting all 49 games of his college career). If the young anchor rebounds well from his torn ACL week 10 of 2011, he will continue to start, bringing a great simpatico with Fitzpatrick and near impenetrable run blocking.

When Wood went down this season, though, Buffalo's center by committee approach began, with both left guard Andy Levitre (also in his third year, drafted in the second round after Wood was taken in the first)and right guard Kraig Urbik taking shots at the position.  Coach Chan Gailey initially wanted Levitre at center, but had earlier moved him from guard to left tackle when starter Demetrius Bell went down (again... but more on him later). Andy was great in relief of Bell and though he played healthy all season and looked great at tackle and guard, he was a disaster when put in at center against Miami. There was no rhythm, balls were mis-hiked to Fitzpatrick (some sailing up near his head, others skimming the grass at his feet), and Levitre was quickly returned to tackle. Though Chan publicly admitted it was his mistake to force a third position on him in one season, in comparison Urbik thrived in his third position of 2011, finding comfort in the center position to end the year (almost, he was injured for the finale and replaced by second year lineman Colin Brown).

At right tackle all year was Mr Consistent Erik Pears, a seven year veteran who was the only lineman to play at the same spot every game of 2011. He started 16 of 16 games, had no issues, was key in the Bills success early on, and only moved occasionally to the left to spell certain players in formations that dictated it. He is a no brainer as a starter for 2012.

This, now brings us to the spot on the line that needs the most attention. With next to no free agent worries or major question marks (apart from the injury concern) at any other spot on the line (except that Urbik is a restricted free agent), it is at left tackle that the Bills are going to be focused on in this offseason, perhaps even using a first or second round pick to address it. According to GM Buddy Nix, "you can never have too many tackles", and with several first round quality options in the 2012 draft, perhaps it might be time to say farewell to Demetrius Bell.

A 7th round draft pick in 2008, it has been hard to get a feel for how good Demetrius really is. Talented for sure, but Bell (who may or may not be the offspring of NBA great Karl Malone... for real...) played zero games his first year as the Bills "developed" him. He played half of 2009, started 16 of 16 in the woeful 2010 season (when many thought Buffalo might not win one), and seemed to be moving along nicely. However, he then began 2011 starting in just four games before breaking his collar bone. He returned after eight games, but only to find himself reinjured after just three games (this time with a knee/ankle ouchie). It's been "all rehab and no practice time" for Bell in 2011, making the Bills management question his reliability at the spot enough that he may not be resigned in the offseason. In his place, Clemson rookie Chris Hairston saw some action, but injured his leg and has been called to task for being unathletic, needing to get stronger before he can be seen as a starter.

So, with health, the Bills looked strong with Levitre at left guard, Urbik at right, Pears at right tackle, and Wood at center, but the question marks raised about Bell and his status as a free agent may lead Buffalo to look elsewhere for talent at this point. Truth be told, he's the biggest free agent tackle on the market (maybe Jared Gaither in San Diego), so it is to the draft the Bills should be looking, where there are a plethora of talented O-linemen this year ("and how many would you say is in a plethora?"). It's been no secret that Buffalo is looking to shore up their gruesome pass rush (ranked 29th in sacks, dead last without the Washington game), so the odds of Buffalo gobbling up a first round talent at tackle may be a reach.

I'll say that it's been no secret I believe OLB/DE Courtney Upshaw is my pick for the Bills in the first round, but if they look for a left tackle fix right off the bat, there's a chance USC's Matt Kalil could be there. THE top tackle on the boards in 2012 (he ran a 4.99 sec. 40 yard dash and managed 30 of the 225 lb bench reps at the Combine), Kalil comes NFL ready after working in a pro style offense defending QB Matt Barkley. He is a technically outstanding and is a top flight prospect for any team, needing only some extra work at run blocking to become truly complete, but he will very likely be snatched up before pick 10. Option two then becomes Riley Reiff, who comes to the NFL from the NCAA O-line factory known as Iowa. Projected to go in the top 15, Reiff (who was actually repositioned to guard at the Combine due to his short arms) may not be there for Buffalo should they choose to wait until the second round to grab a tackle, so if they want him, they would once again have to pass on Upshaw (or else gamble). You run into the same problem with Stanford's Jonathan Martin, another NFL ready tackle who Buffalo would be lucky to see in the second round.

Obviously, all signs are then pointing at Buffalo taking a tackle in the second round, which gives us two decent prospects to consider: Florida State's Zerbie Sanders (who I want for the name alone) or my dark horse, Oklahoma State's Levy Adcock. Sanders was roughed up at the Senior Bowl by North Carolina's Quinton Couples and (SURPRISE!) Alabama's Courtney Upshaw,  but he had some great starts for FSU at both right and left tackle. Though primarily a rightie, he had to fill in at left due to injuries (sounds like Buffalo) and is a rounded pass/rush blocker, needing to just get a little stronger holding blocks and moving quick to get back in pass formations. Then, there's Adcock, who is rated 9th of the tackles available and is projected to go in the third round, but who just seems to be a great fit for Buffalo. He had to flip back and forth between right and left tackle in 2011(again, a good skill for the Bills), but has shown strength at both positions. Taken to task for his "heavy feet" and occasional inconsistencies in blocking, he looked amazing in both the season finale against Oklahoma and in the Fiesta bowl against Stanford, helping his draft stock tremendously. Again, like Zerbie, Levy is seen as stronger at right guard, but he seems more than able at either spot and, had he played at the Senior Bowl, may be rated slightly higher.

Should the Bills keep Bell, this is all a bunch of nonsense and they'll take a project later in the draft. Hell, they'll probably still grab another offensive linemen late, with one of their two fifth round picks or their sixth, but there really doesn't seem to be much faith in Bell's ability to continue advancing, so look for Adcock or Sanders to enter the picture, or maybe even Boise State's Nate Potter (a natural left tackle who isn't perceived as elite without a little more work). Either way, the Bills are looking to build on their already solid foundation and pave the way for them to find their way back to the playoffs (maybe find a little success even). Though not a major concern by any means, the version 2012 Bills would be wise to remedy the one, tiny flaw in an otherwise fantastic (though fragile) offensive line.

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