Left guard was a huge issue for the Buffalo Bills during the 2013 season. In March of 2013, four-year starter Andy Levitre departed for (much) greener pastures in Tennessee, and the Bills attempted to fill his position by creating a competition between incumbent reserve Colin Brown and cheap free agent depth option Doug Legursky. Brown was released after a month and a half on the job, and while Legursky was far more serviceable for the duration of the season, the position left much to be desired.
For a while, left guard was considered one of the team's biggest areas of need heading into the 2014 NFL Draft. Many still consider it that way, even after the team handed out a starter-level contract to a free agent lineman they're already penciling in as the starting left guard. Given what we know about the guard and center positions for the Bills, it's entirely conceivable that they consider themselves pretty well settled on the interior offensive line.
Talent on hand
It's tough to look at the top three contracts at the Bills' guard and center positions and come to any other conclusion that these are their three starters. (It also gives you a good idea of how they value the positions.)
|Eric Wood||C||8/30/2013||4 years, $25.4M, $9M signing bonus||2018|
|Chris Williams||LG||3/12/2014||4 years, $13.15M, $5.5M guaranteed||2018|
|Kraig Urbik||RG||12/17/2012||4 years, $15M, $3.5M signing bonus||2017|
The conversation starts with Wood, who enters his sixth pro season as the only remaining member of the Bills' 2009 draft class. 2013 was his best season, when he not only signed his four-year contract extension (added onto the final year of his rookie deal), but followed that with his most consistent season and, for the first time, playing a full 16-game schedule healthy. He is the leader of the offensive line, and another season like last season will establish him as the anchor of the unit for the foreseeable future.
Urbik worked through some minor injuries last season, but has been entrenched as the Bills' starting right guard for over three years now. Williams, a free agent signee from the St. Louis Rams, is a former first-round pick in Chicago that finally found a home at left guard, though his performance was notably shaky. That didn't deter the Rams from wanting to re-sign him, but the Bills outbid them, and they have a new left guard to show for it. Doug Marrone and Pat Morris will attempt to fully revive Williams' career; at bare minimum, he brings much-needed athleticism to the guard position in Buffalo.
The aforementioned Legursky, who can also play center, gives the Bills a depth option at all three interior positions that they're familiar with. Don't forget the name J.J. 'Unga, either; the Bills liked him enough to give him a few reps last season, and he's the only project name worth keeping an eye on for the time being.
Need assessment: Athletic Depth
Wood is the only player here that we can safely consider a long-term fixture for the Bills; there are more than enough question marks about Williams, and even Urbik (who is not the best athlete), to wonder whether or not they'll see the end of their contracts with the Bills. But again, for now, it's looking quite likely that they will hold down the starting jobs next season.
Buffalo should be planning for the future, however, by finally investing in some quality athletic depth at the position. 'Unga is a name to keep an eye on there, but Legursky is the least athletic of the bunch, and is also a free agent after the 2014 season. It would be particularly helpful if the Bills could land an athletic center with some versatility and long-term starting potential; that would be the bare minimum effort to giving this group a significant upgrade in future optimism.
The Bills only brought in one interior lineman by trade, and that's 6'3", 320-pound USC center Marcus Martin. The nimble-footed, experienced center is exactly the type of player the Bills appear to be looking at (and Williams, for the record, is similar athletically) in terms of body type and athleticism. He is viewed as a likely day two pick, and while it might seem unlikely that the Bills would address their interior line that early, it's also difficult to envision fans complaining much about it.
Buffalo also hosted two more early-round prospects that played tackle in college, but who translate well to guard at the NFL level as well: Zack Martin of Notre Dame, who is a likely first-round pick and who will get his first NFL job at tackle, and Canadian prospect Laurent Duvernay-Tardif of McGill University, who is usually considered a mid-round talent.
Most Bills fans have come to grips with the idea that the team, at least until they're better situated in higher-valued areas, probably aren't going to invest early-round picks at this position the way they did in '09 with Wood and Levitre. (A different Bills regime made those picks, by the way.) Bigger-name guard and center prospects like Xavier Su'a-Filo, David Yankey, Martin and Weston Richburg might not be a major part of the team's draft-day plans.
In the middle rounds, however, there are usually intriguing athletes worth selecting in an effort to coach them up. The Bills have attempted to do this with tackle prospects before, so names like Brandon Thomas of Clemson (who will not be healthy until later in the fall after an ACL tear), Billy Turner of North Dakota State, and Duvernay-Tardif are notable players to keep an eye on there. Travis Swanson of Arkansas is another center prospect to keep in mind.
A popular theory amongst Bills fans that still can't wrap their minds around the Williams contract is that the Bills paid him not to be the starting left guard, but as a high-end swing tackle that can play right tackle or left guard if necessary. I, personally, consider this rationalization part of the denial stage within the five stages of grief, but is there anyone out there that can get on board with that thought process?