Buffalo Bills training camp is still nearly three months away, but one of the more intriguing positional battles brewing is at center, where fourth-year starter Eric Wood has not yet finished a pro season having played all 16 games.
Wood - the 6'4", 310-pound, 2009 first-round pick out of Louisville - is coming off of a second season in three pro years in which he landed on IR with a leg injury. Last year's ailment - a torn ACL - was decidedly less gruesome than his broken leg sustained as a rookie, but when those leg injuries sandwich a 2010 season in which he also missed two games with an ankle injury, it's fair to expect the Bills to have a backup plan in the pivot if Wood can't stay healthy again.
That's the thing, though: the Bills still don't have a lot of clarity at that position. In fact, there's less clarity there than at tackle, where only one starter is a lock. While the Bills will have a competition at left tackle between two highly-regarded draft picks and have more depth than they've had in years there, the center position behind Wood is merely a list of options that would entail a lot of shuffling parts.
When Wood was lost for the season in a Week 10 loss to Dallas last season, right guard Kraig Urbik slid into the pivot and did a commendable job in that position in the remainder of the Bills' blowout loss. The following week, however, left guard Andy Levitre - who had been filling in at left tackle with Demetrius Bell and Chris Hairston both injured - was moved to center when Hairston returned to the lineup.
That experiment proved to be an unmitigated disaster, with Levitre spraying snaps every which way - save for directly at quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The following week, Urbik returned to the center position, where he performed admirably until a Week 15 knee injury ended his season, as well.
From there, the Bills turned to their fourth center - Colin Brown, a former college tackle at Missouri - who closed out a win over Denver and the season finale at New England at center. After some initial trouble with his snaps, Brown settled into the role about as well as anyone could have expected.
There was some thought that after the transitional issues the team went through trying to replace Wood last season that they'd take extra precautions in making sure they had more clarity at the position moving into 2012. That does not appear to be the case, however, as the only two additions made are not true centers, and only add to the team's existing list of options.
Mark Asper, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon, was described by GM Buddy Nix as a guard/center type that would likely work in those roles. At 6'7" and 325 pounds, however, Asper is just as atypical size-wise for the pivot as Brown (6'7", 326). Centers are typically expected to be a bit shorter, as taller players have trouble anchoring against the squatty, more powerful interior defensive linemen they're facing on a snap-to-snap basis. That's somewhat less of an issue in Buffalo's zone-blocking scheme, but it's still something of a concern.
David Snow, an undrafted free agent out of Texas, is more of the center prototype when it comes to size (6'4", 305) and has experience at the position. It's hard to imagine him ranking higher than the other options on the priority list, however - at least at the moment, when the coaches haven't had time to work with him yet.
For now, if the Bills are thinking as if they're in the regular season, we'd have to imagine that Urbik would be the team's top choice to play center in the event that Wood were to be unavailable. It's possible that the Bills could give Urbik some second-team reps at center in camp - augmented by a few first-team reps for Chad Rinehart at right guard, which wouldn't hurt anyone's feelings - to prepare for that possibility. That's probably the way it should be. What's of interest is who comes next: the battle between Brown, Asper and Snow could help determine a final spot on the Bills' 53-man roster - with the best center prospect perhaps getting a leg up on the competition, as all three are likely to get time at guard, as well.
The problem with all of that, however, is that it's a short-term fix - particularly when considering that Urbik will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. If Wood can't stay healthy again, and if the team can't retain Urbik next off-season, they may find themselves in a pinch to find a center once the 2012 season is complete. (Wood, for the record, has two years remaining on the five-year rookie deal he signed in 2009.)