Having one of the, if not the, worst OL in the NFL over the last 5+ years is hopefully something that is in the Bills' past. Once again, 2006 was another subpar year for our hogs up front. Like the previous handful of seasons there was a lot shuffling and reshuffling of players along the line. There was some good talent on the OL last year and once the starting five finally had time to gel, we saw some productive results, especially in the deep passing game.
Finally, the Bills may have found their franchise LT. Jason Peters is probably one of the most unlikely players to ever assume such a title as he's a converted 330 pound tight end. Starting off 2006 as the RT, many believed he was the future at that position for the Bills. While he was still growing into a stud tackle, he was switched to the even more important left side of the line during the bye week. Just like on the right side, Peters had strong success over at left tackle and began to draw accolades from unbiased observers around the league. Having him locked up for another four seasons at a bargain price, the Bills are in good shape at LT.
At center, Melvin Fowler provided a solid veteran presence and steady play. He was overpowered by bigger DT's at times and struggled in the run game, but overall his pass protection was good and he proved he should be our starting center.
Terrence Pennington may wind up the gem of the 2006 Draft class. When he was drafted, not a single Bills fan has any clue who this guy was and still didn't once the season began. Pennington had made the team as a backup tackle, but nobody expected him to see much playing time with Peters at RT and veteran Mike Gandy over on the left side. But following a disappointing start from Gandy and the front office's desire to move Peters to LT, Pennington was given the opportunity to take over the starting RT position during the bye week. The move turned out to be a well-timed, under the radar switch. Despite his 7th round status and lack of experience, Pennington played surprisingly well and showed the ability to be an NFL starting tackle. He struggled with bigger and faster DE's and wasn't that effective in the run game, but he showed excellent athleticism and has the size to become a stud at RT.
The team also added depth to the line in the 2006 draft in the form of Brad Butler and Aaron Merz. Butler saw playing time in just two games, but is an intriguing prospect. Some experts have expressed their feelings that Butler could be just as effective as fellow Virginia alum and 2006 top 5 pick, D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Merz got into seven games and even started against New England, but didn't show enough to stay in the lineup full time.
Mike Gandy was nothing more than an average lineman for the Bills, but had the versatility to play guard and tackle, so that may effect the depth of the OL if Butler and Merz don't step up. Tutan Reyes was last season's version of Bennie Anderson, a worthless free agent pick up right before the draft.
In order for this offense to take the next step forward, the OL needed to be solidified and the talent needed an overhaul. The Bills wasted no time bringing in three veteran offensive linemen within the first 2 days of free agency. The big coup was Derrick Dockery the huge Guard from the Redskins. He's an up and coming guard with very good run blocking skills and is improving his pass protection. The Bills were ridiculed for the contract they gave Dockery, but with continued improvement from him, he could be worth it to an OL starving offense. Also brought in was perennial underachiever Langston Walker. A 2nd round pick in 2002, the veteran has been in and out of Oakland's line up. Despite a ton of talent, he has never truly put it together making the contract he signed very risky. It is still unknown whether the staff brought him in to play RT or RG. And finally, the first free agent brought in during the signing period was Jason Whittle, a very versatile player that can line up anywhere on the OL. He was signed to a one year deal, so in my opinion, not much is expected of him. If a player goes down, I believe he's the first one off the bench.
Peters and Fowler are the only returning starters guarenteed a starting position. Dockery will slide into the LG slot to form a dynamic and hopefully road grating left side of the line. Pennington will need to continue improving if he wants to start at right tackle. Reports have indicated he's come into workouts bigger and with a chip on his shoulder. Let's hope he's been studying technique and game film all offseason as well.
Hopefully, the OL issues of the past are behind us and we have finally found a long term starting five. Going into the summer, I'm going to have a lineup of Peters-Dockery-Fowler-Walker-Pennington embedded in my mind. I can't see Pennington not given the chance to start at RT, which means Walker and his big deal will be playing RG. With a veteran next to him, Pennington could have a very surprising season. All signs point to better things out of Fowler as well, as having two quality players next to him should allow him to elevate his game. There are still question marks about this group, but on paper it looks much better heading into the Draft.
In my opinion, I don't see the need to take a single OL in the Draft. With three young linemen from last year's class and the three free agent signings, the team appears to have quality depth and potential future starters in backup roles. There is not a huge need to take a lineman this year, but a young Center to groom for the future may be looked into.
LeRoy Harris from North Carolina State is a guy I'll have my eye on. He's played both interior positions, but projects as a Center in the NFL. If he's available in round 6, I would think about using that selection on him. More than likely the Bills will bring in an undrafted free agent or two that play inside. It's tough to project those type of players at this time, but guys such as Dan Mozes (WVU), Dustin Fry (Clemson), Kasey Studdard (Texas), Robert Turner (New Mexico) and Cameron Stephenson (Rutgers) would also be quality 7th round or UDFA pickups. Again, the need is not there to draft a lineman, but if the opportunity is there I can see Marv and company adding to the depth we currently have.
One thing is for certain, we need the current crop of projected starters to really step it up this year. A young, improving QB needs all the help he can get from his line and without the comfort of a top RB currently, the OL will have to provide the running game a huge boost. With the talent on the roster there is no question these guys can gel as a unit and get the job done, but it is no given we'll get premium play out of all the starters. Our left side could be a couple of Pro Bowlers this year, but the offense will struggle if the right side of Walker and Pennington (or Preston/Whittle and Walker) don't improve their consistency, technique and overall play. The offense really hinges on the success of this year's free agent class. I'm one Bills fan who's happy the front office finally spent some money on the OL. Let's just hope it was spent wisely...
Tight End: As for the tight end position, there is talent, but limited success. Robert Royal had his fair share of moments last year, but left a sour taste in many Bills fans' mouths by only getting one foot down against Tennessee. I think Royal is a good starting TE, but needs a strong compliment. He has shown the ability to make plays downfield and is an excellent blocker in the run game. I believe he takes a step forward this year and has a season reminiscent of his second half of 2006. He is the red zone threat we need from the position. Kevin Everett has yet to show he's capable of being a good TE in the NFL. Coming off the significant knee injury he suffered in his first training camp in 2005, he looked lost and far from 100% last year. With another offseason of rehabbing and learning the playbooks, we'll finally get to see if Everett has what it takes to help our offense. He's got the athletic ability that teams look for at the position, but are the intangibles there? Let's hope so, because a TE duo of him and Royal is very athletic and would give Losman two more solid weapons through the air. Brad Cieslak showed good pass receiving skills last year and was a competent blocker. Though he doesn't possess the raw ability that Royal and Everett have, he does have an excellent feel for the game. He saw time as an H-back last year and Fairchild and Marv have mentioned we'll likely be using more of that position this year, so his place on the roster looks pretty secure. Going into the Draft it's hard to determine if the Bills will look to add depth to the TE position. If the staff feels Everett will not be a player for this team, look for the Bills to address the position sooner rather than later. I am of the opinion that Everett will have the chance to prove he can handle the position, so the need for a TE is not high on my list. If we do go TE in the middle rounds, a guy like Ben Patrick or Matt Spaeth could be targeted. Patrick, the Duke transfer, played at D2 Delaware last year and showed NFL ability and wowed scouts at the combine. His skill set along with possessing good blocking ability makes him an intriguing prospect. Spaeth is a proven Big 10 TE, but doesn't have the receiving skills the team may covet. There are a few later round players that could become good NFL tight ends. Kevin Boss from Western Oregon looks the part, but is very raw and probably won't be able to contribute right away. A player of a similar mold is Michael Allan from tiny Whitworth college (where??). Again, he's a player with raw skills who probably won't contribute right away. The player I like most though is Derek Schouman of Boise State. Many project him as a FB in the NFL, but I think he'd fit the H-back role in our offense perfectly. He's not the most athletic player, but has good receiving skills and is simply a football player. I wouldn't spend more than a 7th on him and would prefer going after him if he goes undrafted, but I feel he'd be a good fit to our offense. The Bills have bigger needs than a TE, but it is not out of the question to take one on day 1. More than likely, the team will look to add a player at the end of the draft or via free agency soon after. The position could use some more depth, but it would not be wise to go after a player early with bigger needs at RB, LB, CB and WR. Thoughts?