Every-down players are becoming increasingly rare in the NFL. The league finds itself in an era of increasing specialization, where offenses are built around unique athletes that may not necessarily have well-rounded skill sets, and defenses counter by employing sub-packages to match up best against those types of athletes. Amidst it all, finding players that are capable of staying on the field every snap becomes ever more difficult.
Except on the offensive line. Very little has changed there. Teams still trot out five starters and hope against hope that all five can play as close to 100 percent of snaps as possible. They do not rotate players in and out of the lineup by choice, making in-season lineup changes typically due to injury or out of desperation. Coaches work hard to cross-train reserves at multiple positions to try to back up five players with just two reserves on game days.
Five linemen are omnipresent in the design of an offense. One could argue that makes the line just as important to the structure of an attack as the quarterback, and the line's strengths and weaknesses should be emphasized and masked, respectively, by quality coordinators. About the only thing that has changed up front over the years is the size of the guys on the field - and the Buffalo Bills are falling in line with that trend, as well.
The top five
We should have known, from the moment that renowned line coach Doug Marrone was named the Bills' head coach, that things would change sooner or later up front. True, Marrone came into the organization as they were preparing to lose their best lineman, Andy Levitre, to free agency. But it is noteworthy that only two of the eight offensive linemen that Marrone took into his first game with the Bills are unequivocally locked in as starters heading into Marrone's second training camp. (Only five of the eight are still with the team.)
Cordy Glenn will be the left tackle. Eric Wood will be the center. Neither is considered among the top players at his position - though Wood is close to being paid like it, and Glenn will eventually be in a year or two - but both are consistent, quality players at positions of perceived elevated importance up front. Wood is in his prime, while at 24, Glenn remains one of the higher-upside young players on Buffalo's roster.
Glenn and Wood have passed the initial Marrone sniff test. Left guard and right tackle did not, which is why the Bills threw a $13.5 million deal at St. Louis guard Chris Williams in free agency, then spent a second-round pick on Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the 2014 NFL Draft. It is widely assumed that, barring injury, both will be in the starting lineup for the Bills for their Week 1 game in Chicago.
Already, there are whispers that incumbent starting right guard Kraig Urbik may be next on Marrone's upgrade list. The pool of candidates to compete with Urbik is not especially impressive - Chris Hairston is a tackle by trade taking guard reps for the first time, Doug Legursky has already been replaced as the left guard, rookie Cyril Richardson needs a healthy amount of coaching, and returning reserves J.J. Unga, Antoine McClain and Mark Asper were mostly non-factors a year ago ('Unga did steal a handful of snaps from Urbik in one contest, but that's it). Still, the whispers exist, and that's significant enough for a line that is already dealing with a good amount of change.
Strengths and weaknesses
Let's assume, for the sake of this discussion, that the Bills' starting offensive line will consist of Glenn at left tackle, Williams at left guard, Wood at center, Urbik at right guard and Kouandjio at right tackle. That seems like the surest bet to place at the moment, at any rate. What should the team expect from that quintet up front?
First, let's review the flavor of the offense as determined by the quarterback. To get the passing game to a level of consistency, the Bills need as many clean pockets as possible (duh) simply to mitigate EJ Manuel's most glaring weaknesses, which all stem from correctable issues in the pocket. (Pass blocking is also more involved than the five linemen, so we'll cover this area in a future article about tailbacks.) To account for a work-in-progress passing attack, the Bills are certain to rely heavily on their running game, which is music to any lineman's ears.
On the edges of the line, with projected starters Glenn and Kouandjio, the Bills have sufficient pass-blocking range, but nobody is going to be mentioning the Bills when discussing the league's most athletic tackles. Glenn is nimble on his feet, but Kouandjio is a bit more plodding, getting by on the edge thanks to his superior length. Buffalo's tackles are massive; Glenn is 6'6" and 345 pounds, while Kouandjio comes in as a 6'7", 322-pound 20-year-old (he'll turn 21 on July 21). Kouandjio gives the Bills far more upside at right tackle than stopgap incumbent Erik Pears, while adding a marginal amount of athleticism and a noticeable jump in power.
Williams is a flawed player, and Marrone and line coach Pat Morris have their work cut out for them turning him into a quality starter, but at bare minimum, he is a massive athletic upgrade over Legursky. Wood is an above-average athlete for the position. One would imagine that the reason the team is toying with a competition at right guard is because Urbik is not anything more than average athletically. Hairston, his perceived closest competitor at the moment, is not especially athletic either, but would also add a bit more oomph to the running game from a power perspective. Those three projected interior starters are all giant humans, as well (Williams is 6'6", 326; Wood is 6'4", 310, and the smallest projected starter with ease; Urbik is 6'5", 324; and Hairston is 6'6", 330).
The Bills have a growing offensive line, and in more than one sense: the players up front are literally getting bigger, but they also will be growing as a unit, and in the case of young players like Glenn, Kouandjio and potentially Hairston, developing as prospects. That leaves Buffalo with a developing quarterback and a developing offensive line, which only reinforces the idea that the team should be reliant on the running game. Excelling there gives the extremely young and unproven passing attack time to work out the kinks.
The good news is that the Bills are better positioned to run the ball this year. They were an inside zone running team a year ago, with very little variation in the ways they could block due to the athletic limitations of the bulk of their starting line. On paper, this new line is more agile and more powerful. Theoretically, the Bills will be more flexible in the types of run plays they can call, which bodes well for their deep stable of running backs - especially if that means more opportunities to hit the edge for this guy.
From a passing game perspective, the Bills were so reliant on shorter routes building into deep shots - and they'll likely continue that trend with the receiving corps only growing younger - that the focus of the pass blocking should rely on fewer 1-on-1 breakdowns (that was a major issue at left guard and right tackle last year; hence the upgrades) and Manuel correctly diagnosing pressures and setting up protections. The Bills have more upside as a pass-blocking line now than they did a year ago, to be sure, but it's far easier to expect gains in the running game than in pass protection.