Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey has been tinkering with his starting offensive line for weeks. First, he gave some of incumbent starting left guard Andy Levitre's reps to Chad Rinehart. Then he gave some of incumbent starting left tackle Demetrius Bell's reps to Levitre. With the regular season looming, both of those positions remain unsettled.
Figuring out which players will be starting up front for the Bills is, therefore, hard enough. It's even more difficult to surmise who will be behind them on the depth chart when the regular season begins (in exactly 11 days, by the way).
However, there's an easy way - at least to my eye - to boil down the depth chart battle to just two spots. The tough part, of course, is that using this logic, there would be four key contenders for those two spots. Head on in after the jump for a run-down of said logic, and to opine on its soundness or the Bills' offensive line depth in general.
Step 1: Determining the locks
As unsettled as Buffalo's offensive line is, it's also fairly easy to pinpoint which players are virtual locks to make the 53-man roster (to be determined this Saturday). The logic here is simple: we'll simply consider the six players that have gotten first-team reps this summer as locks to make the team.
At tackle, that includes Bell and Erik Pears. At guard, we've got three locks: Levitre, Kraig Urbik and Rinehart. Eric Wood, of course, is the lock of all locks at center.
We'll add a seventh lock, as well, in the form of rookie fourth-round pick Chris Hairston. Why is he a lock? We explained that way back in early May:
In taking Hairston in the fourth round, the Bills made their most significant draft-day investment in the offensive tackle position since 2002, when they infamously made Mike Williams the fourth overall pick. Since that point, and before taking Hairston, the earliest the Bills had taken a tackle was a year ago, when they took Ed Wang in the fifth round (No. 140 overall). In 2006, the team took Brad Butler in the fifth round, No. 143 overall. Both Butler and Wang began their Bills careers at guard.
Now we're up to seven locks. It's not the prettiest group, for certain, but it would be shocking to see any of these seven players not on the 53-man roster come Saturday evening. In that group, we've got one center, three tackles and three guards, so there's a degree of balance, as well.
Step 2: How many to keep?
Obviously, there's no unwritten rule as to how many offensive linemen a team will keep on its active roster to start a season. We do know this: most coaches like to carry seven healthy linemen on their active (46-man) game day roster, and then between one and three behind them on the 53-man roster.
Last season, the Bills opened the regular season with nine offensive linemen. That was only after they snagged Urbik off the waiver wire, however; on the day final cuts were made, the Bills kept eight linemen (and taking a look at this depth chart, you can see where gains have been made in overall depth, at least). For the purposes of this discussion, we'll assume that nine offensive linemen is the ideal number for Buffalo's coaching staff.
That leaves two open spots for the remainder of Buffalo's linemen.
Four Players, Two Spots
In my mind, this is as far as we can get in trying to figure out Buffalo's offensive line situation without seeing tomorrow's pre-season finale. I'll be watching the following four players, all of whom I believe are contenders to make the team - but I'm only expecting half of them to actually accomplish it. (Proper apologies to Colin Brown, Jason Watkins and Michael Switzer, of course.)
- Ed Wang. Until Hairston was picked this year, he was the biggest draft-day investment the Bills had made at tackle since Big Mike - as a meager fifth-round pick. He's healthy again this year after being banged up as a rookie, and has almost exclusively been the second-team left tackle through training camp.
- Mansfield Wrotto. He started a good chunk of the 2010 season at right tackle, but he's played mostly right guard this summer with the second unit. The team clearly liked his versatility enough to bring him back, as they signed him to a two-year contract extension (through the end of 2012) prior to the March lockout.
- Cordaro Howard. A second-year player out of Georgia Tech (where he was, of course, recruited by Gailey and Joe D'Alessandris), Howard played multiple positions for the Bills last year, getting his most critical playing time at right tackle before Wrotto's arrival. He's flipped between the second and third teams this summer, and has also played both tackle positions.
- Geoff Hangartner. Inherited from the Dick Jauron regime (he only played one year under Jauron and Perry Fewell), Hangartner started 12 games at center for the Bills in 2010 before landing on Injured Reserve. This year, he's exclusively been the second-team center. He has two years remaining on a four-year, $9.6 million free agent contract he signed in 2009.
Then, of course, there's the idea that the Bills could throw this logic into winds of irrelevancy if, like last year, they're able to snag an Urbik-like talent off of the waiver wire. We'll adjust accordingly if that happens.