Fowler considered the weak link on a strong line (Photo Source)
Prior to the 2008 NFL Draft - in fact, prior to the free agent signing period of this past March - we took a look at the Buffalo Bills' roster position by position, breaking down then-current personnel, finding holes, and building our community needs list.
Now that free agency and the Draft have been completed, and the Bills have infused their roster with new talent, it's time to repeat our process. Where has Buffalo gotten better? Where have they gotten worse? How will additions impact which Bills veterans remain on the roster? These are questions that we'll attempt to answer over the next week or so.
We continue those discussions today with an examination of Buffalo's interior offensive linemen. To view our previous discussions on Buffalo's G/C situation (pre-off-season), bang it here.
Derrick Dockery: He may not have been completely worth the $49 million that the team invested in him last March, but Dockery proved to be an excellent addition to Buffalo's line. He finally brought post-Ruben Brown stability to the Bills' left guard position, and along with Jason Peters gives Bills quarterbacks excellent blind side protection. Dock has five more years on his contract and will be a Bill for the foreseeable future.
Brad Butler: Who was Buffalo's best run blocker last season? Why, that would be Brad Butler, of course. The last lineman to lock down a starting spot was the Bills' most efficient run blocker all season and proved that he can avoid injuries; he enters his third NFL season in '08 as a promising young blocker still learning the nuances of his position. This kid has a bright future as well.
Melvin Fowler: The starter at center for the past two seasons, the 29-year-old Fowler is the elder statesman amongst the Bills' starting linemen, and is regarded here as the weakest link on the line to boot. Fowler does some good things - he's a solid technician, a fine athlete and pass protector, and can pull on run plays - but in a division where all three of the Bills' opponents run a 3-4 defense with massive nose tackles (Vince Wilfork, Jason Ferguson and Kris Jenkins), Fowler isn't stout enough at the point of attack to handle those guys one-on-one. Look for the Bills to replace Fowler at the pivot over the next season or two.
Jason Whittle: This veteran lineman will be counted on in two capacities (he's virtually locked up a roster spot): he'll be the team's top reserve at both guard and center, and he'll also be the central member of what's called the "wedge", the lead-blocking unit on kickoff returns. We'll see a lot of Whittle on special teams this season, but his true value to this team is his versatility and ability to back up starters at several key positions on the line.
Duke Preston: The young vet is the whipping boy for poor lines of the past. Preston had a shot during '07 training camp to lock down a starting spot at right guard or unseat Fowler at center; he couldn't do either. If Whittle can prove he's completely healthy and the team likes some of its younger players enough, Preston has fallen far enough from grace that he may just be shown the door prior to the start of the regular season.
Christian Gaddis: Gaddis spent the first half of the season on the team's practice squad, was elevated to the active roster after Week 10, and played in his first professional game in the season-ending loss to the Eagles. He's a smart, tough young kid with some physical limitations, but he has a very good shot at claiming Preston's tenuous spot on the roster.
Nevin McCaskill: This is another young lineman signed as an undrafted rookie free agent in '07 that spent the majority of his rookie year on the practice squad. McCaskill is a very similar player to Gaddis (he may be a bit more athletic), but he's likely a longshot to make the roster at this point. He'd be a logical choice for another season on the practice squad, however.
The Additions: Robert Felton
The Bills chose to largely leave intact their interior offensive line, re-signing Whittle and adding just Felton, an undrafted free agent from Arkansas. Felton is a massive player (6'4", 324) that is technically sound and played every line position during his time in the SEC blocking for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. This was an underrated signing, and if Felton holds his own during training camp, he has enough potential to stick around on the active roster. If not, he's a natural pick for the practice squad, even ahead of a guy like McCaskill.
The Subtractions: Aaron Merz
Due to a never-ending spate of injuries that routinely landed Merz on the long-term injury lists, he was released. Merz is a massive player with some potential, but his NFL career may be over thanks to the aforementioned injuries, especially the one to his shoulder.
Pre-Season Outlook: Like the tackles, the Bills have solid - if unspectacular - starters on the interior with young, talented players in reserve. Whittle is the wild card at this position - he gives the Bills excellent versatile depth with NFL starting experience, something the team does not have on the outside. This is another position of strength for the Bills, though these starters still have something to prove.
Sometimes, change is a bad thing. In 2007, the Bills didn't have an overwhelming offensive line, but they did finally establish some consistency among their starting five. This is a big season for this unit - if they don't make improvements across the board - especially from center through right tackle - we may see some changes next off-season. Keep an eye on Fowler and Langston Walker - they seem to be the two guys most likely to be replaced in the near future.
As always, your thoughts on Buffalo's offensive line are welcome and encouraged in the comments section. For those of you who missed it this morning, be sure to check out Ron From NM's in-depth looks at the Bills' 2007 offensive line performance here and here.