Who's ready for a weekend of Terrell Owens?
The Buffalo Bills open training camp in just two short days, as the full squad will take the field for their first official practice of the 2009 season on Saturday morning. I think it's pretty safe to say that if you get your NFL fix at almost any other NFL location (aside from a Bills-centric location, such as this one), you'll hear solely about Owens this coming weekend. That's fine; indeed, it is welcome to a city that hasn't had a football-related national story of note in quite some time. Owens is creating some buzz around this football team.
While everyone else is eagerly awaiting Owens' training camp debut, however, I'll defer to Tim Graham's sentiment: Owens is not the big story heading into camp from a team standpoint. The offensive line is. It's tough to field a competent offense when your line can't play consistently, and that ability is the clear-cut glaring question mark of the day for Buffalo.
With so much riding on a re-shuffled unit that will feature new starters at all five positions, it's a bit disconcerting to hear veteran NFL scouts - in this case, former Browns and Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah - describe the Bills' depth up front as "HORRIBLE." (Capital emphasis not mine.)
Where the concern lies
You have to imagine that certain fellows named Belichick, Sparano and Ryan are keenly aware of the apparent horrible-ness of the Bills' new-look line as well. A quick gel up front is absolutely necessary for the Bills. Even if the line is dominant in the pre-season, that proves nothing - and as such, Mr. Belichick is going to attempt to pick the unit apart like some sort of demonic surgeon when the Bills travel to New England in Week 1. The sooner a starting five is defined - and the more time they play next to each other during Buffalo's five pre-season contests - the better.
Most clairvoyant critics have issues with the projected starting tackle combination of Langston Walker (left) and Brad Butler (right). I've heard "Walker lacks the lateral mobility to deal with 3-4 edge rushers" so many times over the last three months that if his name is mentioned to me, I spit that sentence out in under a second like some freakish human search engine. (You know, from those commercials.) Likewise, concerns exist over Butler's transition back to tackle, a position he has not played in over three years.
Ironically, that's where the concern ends
Most folks worried about the offensive line are not, however, routinely referencing the middle of Buffalo's line, which features not only three new starters, but three brand-new Bills players. The interior of the line - in particular the center position - was the clear weak area up front last season, as the Bills rarely found any sort of consistency running up the middle. Geoff Hangartner, a stellar reserve in Carolina (a team that just happens to be one of the league's best running the football), is the new center. Rookies Eric Wood (Round 1, No. 28 overall) and Andy Levitre (Round 2, No. 52 overall) will be making position switches and are expected to nail down the starting jobs at right and left guard, respectively.
Maybe it's because no one has seen these guys play yet; heck, maybe it's because there's nothing to gripe about because these guys are good. For whatever reason, outside of Buffalo, beyond the "rookie guards" argument, nothing terrible is mentioned frequently about these three players. Don't ask me why; I don't fully understand it. It's completely fair for outsiders to worry about the tackles, but in the nose tackle rich AFC East, why miss out on an opportunity for some equal-opportunity skepticism across the board? (This is especially true for Hangartner.)
There isn't even much said about the depth players (although, admittedly, cracking on depth players is rarely interesting to outsiders). Seth McKinney is an experienced reserve. Kirk Chambers has acquitted himself well in the past. Demetrius Bell is a high-upside project worth keeping an eye on. There's nothing inherently "bad" in those near-universal sentiments, outside of the implied "you probably don't want to rely on these guys full-time."
Regardless, concern is warranted
I'm pretty optimistic about this line. Then again, I'm optimistic nearly to a fault this time of year, and completely understand why the word "HORRIBLE" might creep into some scouts' minds when they glance at the depth chart.
This topic has been beaten to death throughout the off-season. In two days, Buffalo's new line will finally take the field to start proving their critics right or wrong. Skepticism is warranted. If you ask me, a little optimism is justifiable, as well. Either way, if you want to boil Buffalo's potential 2009 offensive success into two key factors, "Trent Edwards" will only narrowly beat out this offensive line - and Owens, in reality, doesn't make the cut.