Last season, in a Week 11 loss to Jacksonville, Buffalo Bills rookie guard Eric Wood suffered a catastrophic lower leg injury that left both bones broken and, thanks to the compound nature of the fractures, muscle damaged. It was one of the most gruesome injuries you'll ever see in the game of football.
Though he's only roughly six months removed from surgery to repair the breaks, Wood is shooting for a July return to full football activities - and the Bills are counting on that return.
Wood's leg injury got a vote of confidence from Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey when the team neglected to address their interior line depth issue until the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Though the team has since added four undrafted free agents to their interior line pool, if Wood is unable to return to the lineup in a timely fashion, Buffalo will be left scrambling attempting to fill the void.
Levitre, Hangartner entrenched as starters
Fellow second-year pro Andy Levitre is entrenched as the team's starting left guard. He might be the only Bills offensive lineman at the moment that is 100% assured, assuming good health, of being in the starting lineup at his current projected position on opening day.
Geoff Hangartner, meanwhile, still has a firm hold on the center spot, thanks in large part to Wood's health concerns. Wood, who played center for four years at Louisville, is still considered in some circles to be the team's long-term answer at center, and given the fact that the rest of the AFC East employs a 3-4 scheme with massive nose tackles, at some point Wood - who is stronger at the point of attack than Hangartner is - will be the preferred player between the two.
For now, if Wood is healthy, he'll likely slide back into the right guard slot he occupied for the first ten games of 2009. Like Levitre, Wood had steadily improved throughout his rookie season after a rocky start to his career (his performance against New Orleans in Week 3 was particularly brutal). It's if Wood isn't ready for the start of the regular season where things get hairy for the Bills.
Where to turn if Wood can't go?
There's exactly one veteran player on Buffalo's roster that is solely viewed as an interior offensive lineman, and that's Christian Gaddis. The Bills took Iowa's Kyle Calloway in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and their plan is to move the college right tackle to guard. Conceivably, Calloway and/or Gaddis would have the first crack at filling in at right guard should Wood not be ready to go.
The team has also emphasized "swing tackles" in the past; that's tackles that can play guard in a pinch. In that light, players such as Kirk Chambers, Jamon Meredith and Andre Ramsey could also factor into the interior line depth situation should Wood be out of the lineup.
As previously mentioned, the Bills have also signed four undrafted rookies that play the interior offensive line - Sean Allen, Jorge Guerra, Cordaro Howard and Kyle Mutcher. They're purely depth players at this point, however, and likely wouldn't factor in as serious considerations to replace Wood.
The article we linked at the top of the page is a report from BuffaloBills.com dated March 31, 2010. At that point in time, Wood was still not allowed to lift with his lower body nor jog, but hadn't lost any mass in his injured leg (nor his upper body) and was still doing what he could at the team's voluntary workouts. He was not limping at that point in time, either.
As the headline of that article suggests, Wood expects to be ready for training camp in July. It's not clear precisely how much more progress he's made in the five-plus weeks since the last update we've received on his condition. Buffalo's first full-team OTAs begin on Tuesday, May 25, so it's conceivable we could get another update on Wood's health at that point in time.
The Bills really need Wood in the lineup, and it's clear that he's made enough progress with enough speed that Gailey feels reasonably comfortable that he'll be ready to go. If there's any sort of setback, however, the Bills will really be scrambling to fill the void - and won't have a lot of experienced options to turn to.