The Buffalo Bills entered the 2009 NFL free agent signing period with a glaring weakness at center. After watching both Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston underwhelm at the position for the past three seasons, it was almost a virtual certainty that the Bills would look for a pivot to anchor their offensive line. On Saturday, the team found that pivot in former Panther Geoff Hangartner.
What wasn't widely anticipated, however, was the Bills still having an open position along their offensive line once they signed their center. Releasing Derrick Dockery will do that for you.
Therefore, even though they've answered the question at center (for the time being), Buffalo is still looking for the fifth and final starter on an offensive line that will only return three starters for the 2009 regular season.
Going the veteran route
There is a growing sentiment that Buffalo would prefer to address this final position - whether it be left guard or right guard, as Brad Butler is capable of playing both - with a veteran. The team already hosted a visit with free agent guard Kendall Simmons; the injury-prone vet reportedly passed a physical from team doctors, but it is unknown if he received any sort of offer.
Then it was reported yesterday that the Bills have inquired about the possibility of trading with the Chiefs for disgruntled guard Brian Waters. We also know that the team had contacted the agent for Vikings free agent center Matt Birk. That's now irrelevant with Hangartner on board - Buffalo passed on Birk as a center because he wanted to be paid like a guard, and they're probably not actually going to consider Birk as a guard - but it does prove that the team is seeking to take the veteran route along the line.
I'm not sure I'm completely comfortable with that notion. Buffalo is already attempting to extend Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters' deal. We're not sure of the parameters of Hangartner's new deal, but one has to imagine they were significant, as the Bills kept him from leaving town even though other teams were interested. If they get Peters done, they'll have given out contracts to Peters, Hangartner, Butler, right tackle Langston Walker and reserve Kirk Chambers. Is six free agent contracts (or, in the case of a possible trade, a re-structured contract) really the best plan of attack for the cash-strapped Bills?
Going the youth route
We do know that Buffalo's coaching staff is comfortable with the notion of playing Chambers - who was re-signed last Thursday - at either guard position. The only issue with that, obviously, is that that Chambers, who is Buffalo's top reserve along most of the line positions, can't exactly be that valuable depth player when he's not depth at all.
Still, the team has bigger fish to fry, including Laveranues Coles, Peters and their continued negotiations with free agent CB Jabari Greer. Can't the team find a youngster (or two) to compete with Chambers and bolster depth through the draft?
That's exactly how I'd play it. Chambers is a solid performer, and he's certainly an upgrade to Dockery at guard in terms of pass protection. I'd rather see the team continue to build the trenches via the draft than bring in a veteran, wait a year or two, and then have this same decision to make at that point in time. If there's one position on the football field (outside of quarterback) where it's a good idea to have a pseudo-"farm system" of constantly-developing talent, it's in the trenches. I just think that letting a rookie push Chambers and allocating free agent dollars to different causes is the best course of action for this team.
You are, of course, well within your rights to disagree with me. There's the poll. Looking forward to the discussion on this one.