The center position has long been a concern for the Buffalo Bills and its fans. Playing in an AFC East division that features three of the league's toughest 3-4 defenses, which in turn feature some excellent, massive nose tackles, quality interior line play is of the utmost importance for this team.
Buffalo didn't get good center play in 2008, when the combination of Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston was, at best, forgettable. Geoff Hangartner was signed as an unrestricted free agent from Carolina to rectify the situation, and while the team did see much better run blocking with Hangartner manning the pivot, the overall gains were not especially significant.
Perhaps the best quality emerging from Hangartner's first season in Buffalo was the fact that he started 16 games. Even though he, too, dealt with injuries along with virtually every other lineman on the roster (in his case, it was a bad back), Hangartner was the only lineman on the roster to take every snap at one position in every game. Still, even with all the positive energy surrounding Buffalo's revamped strength and conditioning program, injuries are still a concern - and if Hangartner goes down, Buffalo doesn't have a lot of places to turn.
The team, under the direction of new head coach Chan Gailey, is likely to keep nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster come early September, with seven of those likely to be active on game days. Buffalo is a team that values versatility in its offensive linemen, but at the moment, they're fielding talent that is more tackle/guard than guard/center. Depth along the interior offensive line, without considering those converted players, is minimal.
One could argue that aside from Hangartner and starting guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre, the team only employs two more pure interior offensive linemen - Christian Gaddis and Sean Allen. Players like Kirk Chambers, Andre Ramsey, Jason Watkins, Kyle Calloway and Cordaro Howard are all getting guard reps during spring OTAs, but they were all tackles in college, and might be better fits on the edge. None of those players are center candidates, either.
Gaddis and Allen represent the only true backup center candidates on the roster - that aren't tied up with other positions, at any rate. They're also low men on the totem pole, with players like Chambers and Calloway having a better chance at securing reserve guard spots. I went on record back June 8 predicting that neither Gaddis nor Allen would make the final roster, which obviously leaves some massive question marks at reserve center.
Most of us want to believe that Wood, last year's No. 28 overall pick and a three-time All-Big East performer as a center at Louisville, is the team's long-term answer at center. How fair is it for the team to expect Wood, the starting right guard, to be the team's primary center, as well, considering that he's not likely to get a ton of playing time during the pre-season to preserve his just-recovered health? Meanwhile, Levitre's experience as a center is very minimal, as he was a left tackle at Oregon State and has only snapped the ball a few times during practices.
A lot is riding on Hangartner in 2010, not only to continue his durable ways, but to improve upon a rather pedestrian 2009 season as a pass blocker. Buffalo has much larger question marks at tackle, where they're more likely to stockpile on depth, particularly given in the investment made in reserve tackle Ed Wang. There's a very good chance that, should Hangartner go down, Wood becomes the only viable option to slide into the pivot - and depending on when that happens, that's pretty risky.
Long story short: we worry about the tackles quite a lot, but center depth is a huge concern as well, and the Bills might not have a lot of options there once the season starts. Don't be surprised if this is a position that the team targets when scouring the waiver wire once training camp cuts start rolling in in late August.