Perhaps the most disappointing area on the 2008 Buffalo Bills team that went 7-9 was its overhyped offensive line. The unit's lone Pro Bowl performer, OT Jason Peters, held out for the entirety of training camp and the pre-season, and promptly gave up 11.5 sacks when he returned to the lineup. OG Derrick Dockery regressed terribly from 2007 to 2008, leading to his release just two years into a seven-year commitment. Two centers, Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston, were unceremoniously shunned as unrestricted free agents. Neither will return to the club.
Then Peters, clearly the unit's most talented player, was traded. That left just two holdovers from last year's line still on the roster in any capacity - guard Brad Butler and tackle Langston Walker. If things go according to plan, neither will play the position they manned last year.
Buffalo signed former Panthers C Geoff Hangartner to man the pivot in early March. The team then did its best during the 2009 NFL Draft to fortify themselves up the middle and get tougher up front; two guards - Eric Wood and Andy Levitre - were added to the mix in the first two rounds. Now that fortifications have been added, it's time to take a closer look at Buffalo's revamped offensive line.
Left Tackle: Langston Walker (6'8", 366 pounds)
Entering his third season in Buffalo, Walker spent all of 2008 training camp as well as the first two games of the 2008 season manning the left tackle position. With Peters out of the picture, Buffalo will now switch Walker over to the left side permanently - and contrary to the beliefs of draft experts confused about the Bills' decision to not draft an OT this past weekend, that's not a bad thing. (Cue "if you're Joey Porter" punch lines...)
The Bills undoubtedly boasted one of the game's most talented left tackles in the game for the past two years when Peters was on the field. But he didn't play like it, folks. Last year's two Super Bowl participants - Pittsburgh (Max Starks) and Arizona (the venerable Mike Gandy) - proved that winning consistently in the NFL is not dependent on having an elite left tackle. Buffalo will go with Walker at the position not because they believe he's an elite pass protector, but because he's smart, dependable and consistent. As long as the team has that on the left side, they'll know how to mask some of Walker's shortcomings (most notably handling speed rushers). Playing Walker here is the right choice, and it doesn't significantly hinder the team's offensive potential.
Left Guard: Andy Levitre (6'2", 306 pounds)
Drafted No. 51 overall last weekend, the former Oregon State product will come into camp with the inside track at the starting left guard position vacated by Dockery. Though he played tackle in college, Levitre's skill set and measurables make him far better suited for guard duty at the NFL level - and he has a chance to be excellent at that position. Levitre's best asset is his disposition - he plays through the whistle and finishes plays. Buffalo didn't have that on the left side of their line last year. The technical and experience sides will improve with time. For now, Levitre is already a step in the right direction at the position - and he'll play the left side because he's used to playing there (he played left tackle at OSU).
Center: Geoff Hangartner (6'5", 301 pounds)
Dispel the notion that 'Hangman' will play anywhere other than center this year, folks - Buffalo wants a veteran lining up across from the likes of Vince Wilfork, Jason Freguson and Kris Jenkins this year. He may not stay at center permanently (he has played guard as well), but he'll definitely start there. The Bills rated Hangartner as one of their top two available centers this year in free agency, and the price at which they got him was a bargain. He's a smart technician that isn't a brute, but knows how to handle himself. Again, buzzwords like "finisher" and "nasty demeanor" come into play with this guy. If he even approaches competency, he's a significant upgrade at center for the Bills.
Right Guard: Eric Wood (6'4", 304 pounds)
A college center, Wood is used to playing with a right-side mentality; therefore, he'll likely step in as the starting right guard right out of the gate. He and Levitre are very similar players from an asset standpoint, though Wood is a bit more physically gifted - he's quicker, gets to the second level with greater ease, and is better on the pull (something Levitre will have to get used to playing inside). Wood was highly thought of by many NFL teams - he's going to be a good pro. The fact that he's an instant starter made him a very wise first-round investment, even if some folks are painting the pick as a "reach" on Buffalo's behalf.
Right Tackle: Brad Butler (6'7", 315 pounds)
Let's cut right to the chase, folks - playing right guard for the past two seasons, Butler has been Buffalo's best offensive lineman. There, I said it. His play has been consistent, his demeanor is something that the Bills tried to match with the three new linemen they've brought in, and though he's a bit injury-prone (he missed three games last season and most of his rookie year), his durability issues are severely overblown. Butler played right tackle - bookend to current Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson - at Virginia, and at 6'7", he's probably better suited to playing on the outside. He was, is and will remain Buffalo's best lineman.
Buffalo will employ a "swing tackle" approach to its offensive line depth, featuring tackles-by-trade that they'll work on the inside in practice. Veteran Kirk Chambers, once a street free agent, has turned himself into one of Buffalo's most valuable reserve players at any position. He will be the primary backup at four positions - both tackle spots and both guard spots. Demetrius Bell, a seventh-round draft pick in 2008 with tremendous upside, will be worked in a similar fashion - and depending on how Wood and/or Levitre progress, Bell has an outside shot to start at right tackle as well (moving Butler back inside). The team also added veteran Seth McKinney as a free agent in the off-season; the seven-year pro could be the primary backup at center and provides the team extra cushion at all three inside spots. Buffalo may look into adding another veteran depth player during the summer months, with former Steelers OG Kendall Simmons being a candidate.
2008 starting offensive line
Jason Peters - Derrick Dockery - Melvin Fowler - Brad Butler - Langston Walker
2009 projected starting offensive line
Langston Walker - Andy Levitre - Geoff Hangartner - Eric Wood - Brad Butler
No matter which way you slice it - whether you like or dislike the changes made - there are intriguing talking points when an overhaul this massive occurs. The discussion is now in your hands, folks - have we improved, or should QB Trent Edwards make some tweaks to his health insurance policy?