Yesterday, we discussed the stability of Buffalo's offensive tackle position, a unit headlined by Jason Peters and one of the Bills' deepest positions on the roster. The rest of the offensive line, however, is much more highly debated - so let's debate the Bills' interior linemen. We'll start with centers, and work to guards.
Perhaps the most hotly debated player on Buffalo's line. Coaches like Fowler's technical approach to the game, and he's certainly been an upgrade over his predecessor, Trey Teague. However, his strengths do not match with the strengths of his linemates; namely, he's not a powerful run blocker (at 310 pounds, he is the Bills' lightest starter). Even so, Fowler is a good pass protector, and very mobile when pulling. Very good at getting to the second level. Many feel that a bigger center would bring more balance up the middle; however, it's unlikely that Fowler loses his starting spot in '08.
Will Improve in '08 if - Brad Butler continues to improve next to him :: the Bills try to run up the middle a bit less :: they utilize his mobility on toss sweeps
Whittle missed most of the '07 season, and now he's a free agent. The veteran signed in Buffalo to re-unite with coach Jim McNally; now that McNally has retired, the likelihood of Whittle returning - even for the veteran minimum - seems to favor the "remote" side, especially with younger, higher-potential options behind him.
Spent most of 2007 on the team's practice squad. The youngster is a smart player with a bit of upside; he's also a bit undersized (300 pounds) and very raw, so it would probably be unwise to count on him to be sufficient depth next season. He may stick around, however, on the practice squad.
Buffalo's prize free agent addition last season, Dockery finally brought stability to the left guard position for the Bills. He may not have been worth every penny of his $49 million deal, but he has another season playing next to Jason Peters to earn his keep. Dockery still has flaws - he's a very good guard, but he's not reached the point of dominance yet - but as he continues to gel with Peters, his game will elevate. He's a big reason Peters had such a giant leap forward in consistency this season; that, coupled with his fantastic mobility as a puller on run plays, means that he's got a bright future in Buffalo.
Will Improve in '08 if - he and Peters can stay healthy :: the coaches continue to utilize his mobility :: he can become more consistent in his technique in pass protection
Outside of Fowler, the biggest question mark on the line - for reasons unknown to yours truly. Butler is certainly the most inconsistent player on the starting unit, but he was also the most dominant at times in the run game. He's very technically sound, and he plays the hardest of the starting unit. He's outstanding at hitting the second level on outside runs, and mobile enough on the inside to help out anywhere when an opponent is blitzing. He still has stretches where he gets out of sync, but he's young enough to be able to work through that, and soon. This kid has a bright future, and the coaching staff is very high on him.
Will Improve in '08 if - his play becomes more consistent :: he can add a bit more bulk in the off-season :: he can continue to prove he can stay healthy, something he struggled with in college
Be glad that Butler was handed the starting right guard, folks, because Preston has proven in Buffalo that he'll never be a starting lineman. He is, however, versatile depth - he has the ability to play either guard position or center. That alone may allow him to stick around for the final year of his rookie contract next season; there's certainly room for improvement, from a team standpoint, at the top interior reserve position.
Another young player who may or may not be around next season. It looked like Merz would be cut prior to the '07 season, but an injury ended his year, keeping him on the roster as a member of the IR. He's got versatility inside - and much more girth than most of his interior peers, giving him a leg up - but his upside is severely limited.
Buffalo was extremely fortunate to have their starting offensive stay as healthy as they did last season. The starting five of Peters, Dockery, Fowler, Butler and Walker will most assuredly enter '08 as the starters once again - and that's a good thing - but measures must be taken to build up some depth, especially inside, given the fact that the Bills likely won't avoid the injury bug up front as miraculously as they did this season.
Possible Additions: a bigger backup center :: a bigger backup guard to replace Preston
Possible Subtractions: Preston, Whittle, Gaddis, Merz