Kraig Urbik has been the starting right guard for the Buffalo Bills since the start of the 2011 season, playing well enough in his first two years on the job to earn a four-year, $15 million contract extension in December of 2012. He enters training camp in 2014 as the projected starter at right guard, but his job may not be completely safe this summer.
During the 2013 season, which was head coach and noted offensive line guru Doug Marrone's first with the team, the Bills started tinkering with their right guard position. The fact that Urbik yielded seven plays to reserve J.J. 'Unga in one game was barely a blip on the radar, given that losing seven plays while playing 1,143 himself establishes a pretty clear pecking order. But Urbik was healthy when the Bills started taking a longer look at 'Unga, and it was curious that the team took their highest-paid guard out of the lineup instead of left guard Doug Legursky, who struggled far more frequently than Urbik did a year ago.
Then, this past spring, as Marrone and line coach Pat Morris were messing around with different combinations up front in a padless practice setting, Urbik was again watching as reserves took first-team reps. Then, in the last couple of weeks of offseason workouts, fourth-year reserve tackle Chris Hairston - coming off of missing the entire 2013 season, but with ample experience as a starting tackle in both 2011 and 2012 - began splitting first-team right guard reps with Urbik.
The proverbial can of worms seems to be open, and if the rotation continues when the Bills hit the field at Growney Stadium this Sunday night, it will confirm what we've now suspected for weeks: that the Bills' right guard job is up for grabs.
It's worth pointing out, however, that having not seen any camp practices yet this summer, the situation is still fluid. Perhaps Marrone was simply tinkering during the spring months, and Urbik's job is as safe as it was last season. Or, alternately, more players will ultimately be involved in the battle than simply Urbik and Hairston; 'Unga could be involved, veterans Legursky, Mark Asper, and Antoine McClain are still with the team, and fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson out of Baylor offers upside, as well.
If the right guard job is open for business, however, a battle between Urbik and Hairston would offer the most intrigue. Urbik has been a steady, if unspectacular, starter for three seasons. Hairston, back from an illness, theoretically offers tremendous value to the team as a swing tackle, but he might also be one of the best five linemen on the team right now, as well. We know that the Bills want to better sustain drives and to rely on the run, and perhaps Hairston packs a bit more punch as a run blocker, even though he lacks any significant experience at the position.
Right guard may seem like an overlooked position, but if a starter emerges and plays well, we're talking about one of less than seven or eight roles on the roster that will seriously contend to play every snap this season. It is a major job opening, and while Urbik remains the front-runner for the gig, things could get interesting quickly if a rotation develops next week between center Eric Wood and the likely first-team rotation at right tackle.