When the Buffalo Bills decided to trade two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters in April of 2009, not only did they receive three draft picks in return - including the No. 28 overall pick in the '09 NFL Draft - but the decision signaled an impending overhaul of the team's offensive line, as well. Indeed, when the 2009 season began, Buffalo featured new starters at all five line positions.
With that No. 28 overall pick acquired for Peters, the Bills began their offensive line overhaul not by replacing Peters with a new left tackle, but by selecting highly-regarded Louisville center Eric Wood.
As his rookie season wore on, Wood - the team's new starting right guard since very early in his first training camp - began to live up to his first-round selection status. Buffalo hadn't been running the ball well in recent weeks (the team's decision to start Marshawn Lynch over Fred Jackson had thrown a wrench into their efforts in that regard), but Wood had been playing largely mistake-free ball, had developed into a more consistent blocker, and was looking more and more confident every week. Then his leg was shattered by a falling Jacksonville defender, bringing his rookie season to an abrupt and gruesome close.
Wood enters his second professional season coming off reconstructive surgery to his lower left leg, which suffered a compound fracture and two broken bones on that ill-fated play in Jacksonville. Still, Wood's recovery has been sufficiently rapid to create the possibility of practicing before the end of OTAs. At the very least, Wood is expected to be ready to go during training camp, where he still might be limited to ensure his health come Week 1.
He'll re-assume the right guard spot he vacated last November for now; though he played center at Louisville, it appears that the Bills are content with allowing veteran Geoff Hangartner to man the pivot for the time being. Hangartner, 28, was the Bills' starting center for the entirety of the 2009 season.
As a prospect, Wood is not uniquely talented. Nothing really stands out about the guy athletically; he's not a top athlete, nor will he wow anyone with his size or power. What Wood does do, however, is stand out on tape, in the locker room, and in the huddle. He's not an amazing athlete, but he's not a poor one, either; he's got a good frame, very solid mobility and toughness, and plays with excellent aggression, blocking hard from whistle to whistle. He's a leader; leaders on the interior line are rare. Those leaders are the star interior linemen that you read about so frequently.
That's what Wood has - star potential. He has the ability to lead a cohesive offensive line - one that equals more than the sum of its parts - thanks to his elite-level intangibles. It's not precisely clear what the team's long-term plans with Wood are, but it's safe to say Bills fans envision him as the team's long-term starter at center, though he appears to be entrenched at guard for the foreseeable future. Even at guard, Wood brings qualities that his fellow linemen lack, and a good season in which Wood emerges as the leader of the line would have him well on his way to stardom.
But this post is about the 2010 season. Wood enters this season as one of the ten most important players on the roster not only because the Bills desperately need a catalyst for cohesion up front, but because of the high-quality 3-4 defenses in the division. Buffalo has a known commodity at center in Hangartner, and a left guard (fellow sophomore Andy Levitre) that could either be dominant, or headed toward a Hangartner-like career path. Wood has the highest ceiling and the most talent of any of these players, and in a division that features three big nose tackles and ultra-talented inside linebackers, Buffalo's interior line will need to develop consistency and be ready for every brand of athlete. Wood, as mentioned, is the guy to engender the necessary cohesion to handle those challenges.
Obviously, there's a lot of pressure on Wood and his surgically repaired lower leg this season. He's more than capable of handling that pressure as a person and a player, but the physical aspect of his game is still a question mark, despite the positive signs emerging from June OTAs. We do know this: Buffalo's line has a far better shot at gelling in 2010 if Wood is in the lineup; he has that effect on his (hopefully more durable) teammates. In 2010, he'll play a huge role in that department, and if he succeeds, much bigger things are in store for Wood down the line.