The Buffalo Bills surrendered 48 sacks to opposing defenses in 2013. That was the highest single-season sacks allowed total for the Bills since the 6-10 2003 outfit with the infamously immobile Drew Bledsoe under center. True, a revolving door of inexperienced quarterbacks exacerbated the Bills' pass protection issues, but let's not absolve the team's offensive line of all blame.
With the 2014 NFL Draft a week away, the tackle position has rhetorically evolved into the most-discussed need area for the Bills. The team has a need not only for depth, but for an upgrade at right tackle, which was one of two sore spots along the Bills' five-man front last season.
But there is always this to keep in mind: since selecting bust Mike Williams with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, Buffalo has only taken one tackle earlier than the fourth round. It's a need, but there's a track record to consider, as well.
Talent on hand
That aforementioned tackle taken before Round 4 in the last 11 drafts for the Bills? Starting left tackle Cordy Glenn, who is only now starting to overcome two years' worth of discussions about future position switches and establish himself as the franchise left tackle the Bills drafted him to be. Bills head coach Doug Marrone and GM Doug Whaley both spoke glowingly about Glenn's 2013 efforts this offseason, crediting him with only 1.5 sacks surrendered of that massive total mentioned up top, and strongly implied that he'll be staying on the left side even if a tackle is drafted in the Top 10. Still just 24 years old, Glenn's future is a bright one.
As settled as the left side is, the right side is equally unsettled. The team has a 16-game starter in place in Erik Pears, the 31-year-old veteran that has held down the starting right tackle job for the last three seasons. He struggled badly for long stretches of the 2013 season, but the Bills would be in significantly worse shape at the position without Pears around, because at least he's a durable, known commodity. Coaches can work with durable and around consistent.
Buffalo has several intriguing project players on the back of the roster that should not factor into any decisions about this position, and the only other player on the roster that might be a part of the bigger picture is fourth-year pro Chris Hairston. He accumulated 15 starts in his first two pro seasons as a quality reserve, showing enough to make him the projected starter at right tackle heading into training camp last summer. However, ankle and foot injuries plagued him early in his career, and then he missed last season with an undisclosed medical issue. All indications are that he will be back and fully healthy for camp this summer, but the team would not be wise to rely on Hairston returning to form and staying there given his background.
Need assessment: Starter Upgrade
It's no secret that, in an ideal world, the Bills will exit the 2014 NFL Draft with a likely new starter at right tackle. Mercifully, it's a fairly deep year for quality tackles this year, so even if they stick to form and pass on the position until after the first or second round, they should be able to land a guy that, at minimum, is skilled enough to compete for the position right away. But Whaley put it best when he discussed the position at last Friday's annual pre-draft luncheon when asked about using a Top 10 pick on a right tackle.
"If he can plug and play and we forget about him for ten years? Why wouldn’t you?" Whaley asked rhetorically. "You’d have two bookend tackles."
Last year, the Bills carried nine offensive linemen on their active roster. Only three of them were tackles, and the third, Thomas Welch, is no longer with the organization. In an ideal world, they'd carry four tackles on the active roster, with three of them active on game days. If Pears is replaced in the starting lineup, he'd likely become a cap casualty - and the team would still need a reliable third tackle in the event that Hairston can't complete his comeback. Depth, therefore, is also a big issue here.
Three early-round tackle prospects visited Orchard Park this spring: Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, Zack Martin of Notre Dame and Cyrus Kouandjio of Alabama. Matthews is considered by many the safest prospect available this season, considering his bloodlines and his very successful college career. He'd be an extremely viable option at No. 9.
Martin has the size of a guard, and while the Bills are typically hell-bent on height, weight and length up front, they spoke highly of Martin's ability to play tackle at the NFL level at the pre-draft luncheon. He could be a darkhorse candidate at No. 9, and would be an excellent option if the team traded down. Kouandjio has overcome some concerns about his knees, to the point where he is now considered a potential late-first round pick. Keep him in mind at No. 41 if the Bills go in a different direction in the first round.
Two other visitors - McGill's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mississippi State's Charles Siddoway - were college tackles that could play either on the right side or inside at guard at the NFL level. Duvernay-Tardif is a hot name that seems destined to be a mid-round pick. A recent Siddoway arrest could land him in the land of the undrafted, but he nonetheless has enough skill to be a sought-after priority free agent.
Greg Robinson of Auburn is not likely to be available when the Bills pick, though there has been some speculation of late that the Bills could move up for him. (We, along with pretty much everyone else, consider that option a bit far-fetched.) Taylor Lewan of Michigan has some off-field concerns to deal with, but is every bit as talented as Matthews, and is only a hair below Robinson.
Beyond Martin, there is a steep drop-off in terms of plug-and-play reliability; those top four names are the guys that would, without a shred of doubt, walk into Buffalo's starting lineup. Other intriguing early-round possibilities include a pair of Tennessee products, Ja'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson; Morgan Moses of Virginia; Joel Bitonio of Nevada, who might profile better as a guard; and Jack Mewhort of Ohio State.
Which long-standing Bills draft trend do you believe is more likely to be bucked next week: a trade up in the first round, or taking a tackle earlier than the middle rounds?