The Buffalo Bills had severe problems along their offensive line last season. Despite Fred Jackson's excellent numbers at running back, Buffalo's passing game - and, by extension, their offense in general - struggled mightily, and it wasn't just because of the team's poor play at quarterback. The injury-riddled offensive line needs fixing, too - which, of course, is a fact that no Bills fan really needs reminding of.
On the interior line, though, there may not be a lot of work to do. Buffalo had two offensive linemen start all 16 games in 2009, and both of them are interior linemen that will be returning to the team next season. On a team with a lengthy needs list at other positions, the middle three spots on Buffalo's offensive line look relatively stable when compared to other positions (like offensive tackle, for instance). Work may get done in this spot, but the team, fortunately, won't need to do as much to field a solid unit in 2010.
What the new regime might be looking for
That's tough to say. GM Buddy Nix has a priority on the offensive front, and that priority is very clearly OT. Nix has displayed a tendency to prefer bigger interior linemen (case in point: OG Toniu Fonoti was a second-round pick during Nix's tenure in San Diego), but given the in-flux status of the rest of the offense, he might stick with some of the smaller players in this group for a year or two.
Continued health and a return to health for injured second-year man Eric Wood make this list, too.
Just as they do at tackle, the Bills currently employ eight interior offensive linemen in one fashion or another.
Andy Levitre. I remain as high on Levitre as I was during the season - I thought he had a terrific close to his rookie season at left guard, and I think he has the ability to emerge as one of the better young guards in the game next season. He's versatile, athletic and plays with an excellent demeanor, and he really made strides after struggling early on. He's ideal at left guard, and that's exactly where I expect him to stay. Levitre was one of my favorite players last year.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $1.44M in base salaries.
Eric Wood. In case you missed it, BuffaloBills.com has a nice piece on Wood's recovery this morning. Long story short: Wood was injured a little over two months ago, is still walking in a boot and rehabbing daily, and has not ruled out the possibility that he might be forced to miss the entire 2010 season. Wood wants to be ready for training camp, but that's not a lock to happen in the least. When he returns, I think he needs to be a center, but that might be risky to toss him into the pivot immediately after his return. Wood is a wild card; don't expect anything out of him, but obviously if he's able to participate in training camp, the team will be better for it.
Contract status: 4 years remaining. Base salaries undisclosed.
Geoff Hangartner. Signed from Carolina last March, Hangartner made 16 starts at center for the team last year and was the only player to start every game at the same position. Gold star, Geoff. His play was dependable, if rather underwhelming. Still, offensive lines aren't built around glitz and glamor, and Hangartner's a pretty good football player. He's a smart guy and a good technician, and he'll be very valuable to this roster next season, even if circumstances put him in a reserve role or at a new position.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $7.7M in base salaries.
Seth McKinney. Signed as veteran insurance last spring, McKinney ended the season on IR (which is applicable to 25% of the entire roster). Now, he's a UFA and completely at the mercy of his evaluation from the new coaching staff.
Contract status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Kendall Simmons. He arrived during the middle of the '09 season and was immediately thrust into the starting right guard slot after Wood and McKinney succumbed to their respective injuries. Simmons was below average, and then he landed on IR, too. Very much in the same situation as McKinney.
Contract status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Richie Incognito. "Enigmatic" doesn't do this guy justice. The penalty machine was signed near the close of the '09 season after St. Louis released him following a two-personal-foul-and-spat-with-the-coach game in Tennessee. Incognito wasn't bad in his short time with the Bills, though he did struggle with penalties while adjusting to his new digs. He's an RFA, and given the fact that the market might not be great for him, the Bills should be able to retain him with relative ease if they so desire. Keep your eye on Miami, who put in a waiver claim last season for Incognito's services.
Contract status: Restricted Free Agent
Christian Gaddis. Brought back as a backup body after the massive spate of injuries. Has a shot to stick again, but likely only as training camp fodder.
Contract status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Marvin Philip. He ended the season on IR, and as far as we can tell is still under contract for the 2010 season. That's about as much interest as Marvin Philip holds for us.
Contract status: Undisclosed. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.
Who stays? Who goes?
Levitre and Hangartner are locks to be around based simply on their contracts; their playing abilities help as well. Depending on the injury status of Wood - also a lock to be on the team if he can play - Incognito has a very good shot at coming back as a nice, if somewhat risky, insurance policy. Gaddis might stick around as a camp body, but McKinney, Simmons and Philip have likely suited up for the Bills for the last time, unless Nix decides he wants to re-sign one or two of those players for veteran depth. He does not need to do so.
If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
Levitre is the opening-day starter at left guard, and Hangartner continues to man the pivot. It's a short-term plan, to be sure, because center is where Wood belongs - but who knows if he'll even be able to play? If Wood can play, I'd expect it to be at right guard, with Incognito the insurance policy at both right guard and center should Wood be forced to sit out. Adding a young depth player to push Hangartner and eventually replace Incognito on the depth chart would be a smart move.
Names to keep an eye on
I'm not expecting any major movement at this position, though obviously with the team so starved for talent, nothing would surprise me. I won't list any names here, but don't be surprised if the Bills do some rather major tinkering here - Nix and Chan Gailey need to get their ducks in a row up front.