Don't expect O-Line to be huge priority in Buffalo

McIntosh, Garmon, Ball, Raymer, Page, Bogle, Parker and Van Buren. That was the San Diego Chargers' 2003 offensive line. They ended the season with a major dissapointment of a young quarterback (Drew Brees), and a stud WR they had just signed in free agency (David Boston) managed to be an equally monumental disappointment. Their offensive line was in shambles, but the Chargers had a running back excel despite having awful starters along the OL; those awful starters then got hurt, and were replaced by other awful starters. Sound familiar?

I had a comment awhile back about how the Giants are kind of considered the gold standard for developing a QB behind a good OL, but their line was a total mess when they drafted Eli Manning. Considering that GM Buddy Nix did something similiar to that at his last job, I thought I'd fill everybody in on the situation surrounding the drafting of Philip Rivers and the building of the Chargers' offensive line. So maybe their RB (LaDainian Tomlinson) was a little better than Fred Jackson is (a 24-year-old Tomlinson ran for 1,683 yards, 13 TDs while catching an unbelievable 100 passes for 725 yards and 4 TDs), but that shows how bad of a year Brees had in his second season by averaging under six yards per pass attempt.

You thought Trent Edwards checked down a lot? San Diego's running back caught 100 freaking passes. And maybe David Boston had a slightly better year than Terrell Owens by catching 70 passes for 880 yards and 7 TDs, but he was causing issues in the locker room, then blew out his knee in Week 15 and basically never played again. Lines can clearly be drawn. That was a Chargers team that went an abysmal 4-12.

Onto the OL: San Diego went into the 2003 season with the following five players making up their starting offensive line. The number you see after each name indicates the number of NFL starts each player made during the season.

Damion McIntosh - 13
Kelvin Garmon - 16
Jason Ball - 8
Solomon Page - 13
Vaughn Parker - 3

That's a combined 53 of 80 possible starts from their OL, which is actually closer to Buffalo than I would have guessed, as the Bills got 52 starts from their line. The Chargers had a solid backup in Cory Raymer start the eigh games at center that Ball couldn't. Phil Bogle, whoever the hell that is, made the only 13 starts of his career. Rookie RT Courtney Van Buren made seven starts, and Bob Hallen, Ed Ellis and Michael Keathley made one or two starts as well. The 11 different players who made starts on the OL is the exact same number as the Bills had this past season.

In the free agency portion of the 2004 offseason, San Diego made a number of moves, most of which were subtractions. Buffalo-born and St. Joe's grad Vaughn Parker was released after 10 years with the team. Damion McIntosh was a free agent, and San Diego let him look elsewhere. He took a six-year, $21 million contract in Miami. Solomon Page and Kelvn Garmon, both mediocre players and UFAs, weren't retained and went to Detroit and Cleveland, respectively. That's four starters that weren't even brought back, leaving the team with center Jason Ball as the only returning week one starter. The Chargers also had rookie RT Courtney Van Buren entering his second season, and 2002 second-rounder, Tonui Fonoti returning from an injury that forced him to miss 11 games of the 2002 season and the entire 2003 season. (He also struggled with weight issues from all the time that he couldn't work out.) There was one big free agent addition though. Mike Goff was given a five-year, $13.5 million contract. He had started the previous four years in Cincinnati and was a key part of some solid seasons from Corey Dillon. Leander Jordan, a backup tackle, was also added.

San Diego went into the draft with a projected line of the following (with extremely suspect depth):

LT: Gaping hole / Leander Jordan
LG: Toniu Fonoti
C: Dave Ball
RG: Mike Goff
RT: Courtney Van Buren

They had holes all over the roster, including QB (again, nobody knew Brees was any good), WR and basically, the entire defense. 2004 was as interesting of a draft as you can find.

The similarities between San Diego and Buffalo go beyond what the roster looks like. Bills fans are beyond tired of being told that players and coaches don't want to come here, but imagine having the first overall pick and the guy at the top of your draft board, who happens to be a QB with the last name Manning, doesn't want to be drafted first overall because he wants nothing to do with your organization. Eli and Archie Manning were very open and honest about their unwillingness to go to San Diego. The Chargers took Manning anyway, in what was likely a predetermined deal with the Giants that just needed some hammering out. They got quite a haul in the trade, including Philip Rivers. In the second round, with offensive lineman Jake Grove and Justin Smiley available, the Chargers took defense and a guy who many thought would go in the first round, Igor Olshansky. The Chargers finally addressed the OL in the third round with the selection of center Nick Hardwick.

The next big move that San Diego made to fix the OL was to trade for a very experienced, but average OT and gave up a fifth round pick for Roman Oben. They made the trade on draft day and used a pick they got from the Giants. Oben had been a starter his whole career playing for the Giants, Browns and Bucs. But Oben was always an afterthought, and actually signed with Tampa Bay for the veteran minimum and wasn't guaranteed a starting spot. He did win that spot and then won a Super Bowl, but he was definitely a mediocre player.

San Diego finished up the draft with a pass rusher (Shaun Phillips) in the fourth, a 3-4 DE (Dave Ball) and RB (Michael Turner) in the fifth, a TE (Ryan Krause) in the sixth, and another 3-4 DE (Ryon Bingham) in the seventh before finally addressing the OL depth. San Diego took a 6'3'' RT from Ohio State who some had projected to go much higher because he was a great player in college, but slid due a lack of size. That player was Shane Olivea and he was taken with the 209th pick in the draft.

So without a first or second round pick and without a huge free agent contract, San Diego was able to overhaul their OL. Hardwick beat out Ball in training camp and Olivea surprised in a big way, beating out Van Buren. The Chargers had five new OL starters with Oben, Fonoti, Hardwick, Goff and Olivea. The new line made 78 starts, with only Hardwick missing a pair of games. San Diego went 12-4 with a spectacular 27 TD, 7 INT season from Brees, as Antonio Gates emerged from nowhere to catch 81 balls for 964 yards and 13 TDs.

While the improvement along the OL was a big factor in SD's 2004 success, the housecleaning from the previous off-season wasn't over. Fonoti was a pretty big disappointment returning from injury. He didn't even make the 2005 team, as an undrafted player from the 2003 draft class beat him out for the spot. That player continued to develop and is now Pro Bowl guard, Kris Dielman. 2003 third-rounder Courtney Van Buren barely made the team and was released without ever playing another down in SD. Their replacements weren't big names or top prospects, as SD focused on defense and playmakers in the 2005 draft. With stud OT Jammal Brown still available, they took Shawne Merriman and then Luis Castillo in the first.  Vincent Jackson was drafted in the second, Darren Sproles was the pick in the fourth and then SD went after OL depth in the later rounds, taking OT Wesley Britt in the fifth, OG Wes Sims in the sixth and OC Scott Mruczkowski in the seventh.

It wasn't until the 2006 draft that San Diego put the finishing touches on their OL overhaul. Oben was declining with age and had missed about half of the 2005 season, leaving LT as a major need. But they didn't let that force them into a corner. Bills fans may remember talks of Winston Justice, the USC LT, being a possibility with the eighth pick. They were one of many teams to pass on him come draft day. He was already sliding when the Chargers passed on him to draft Antonio Cromartie, and he ended up in a complete freefall before Philly took him. It was in the second round that San Diego found their LT with Auburn's Marcus McNeill.

The Chargers put together an offensive line, essentially from scratch, in a very short period of time. They didn't do it with top-of-the-line free agents. They didn't pass on a QB or talented defenders to build it either. San Diego is proof that there is no one way to build an offensive line. When Buffalo is on the clock in a few months, I hope they draft whichever player adds the most to this team over the life of his five-year rookie contract and not whoever the best player at the biggest position of need is. Maybe that guy is an offensive lineman, but the Bills won't rule out a QB based on how bad the OL is. Buddy Nix's old team was smart enough to worry about the ability of the QB and not the situation he was walking into, and that's how Buffalo will approach this off-season.

Oh, and in what will be explained in an article to follow, San Diego also switched to a 3-4 that offseason.

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