The offensive line is a major problem for the Buffalo Bills; there's simply no getting around that fact. Recently, we have discussed how that applies not only to the tackle position, but to starting center Eric Wood, as well.
Most fans are keenly aware, however, that the true problem area on the Bills' offensive line is at guard, where the team started four different players in 2014, with none of them performing anywhere near the realm of league average. Once again, we'll rely on the metrics of Pro Football Focus to provide a little context for this discussion.
Erik Pears, the former right tackle turned starting right guard, was the third-worst guard in PFF's league rankings at the position in 2014, pulling overwhelmingly negative grades as both a pass blocker and a run blocker. Kraig Urbik, who spent more than half of the season as the starting left guard (but began it riding the pine), managed to rank 23 spots higher than Pears largely due to his pass-blocking competence, but he also had a hugely negative grade as a run blocker. Rookie fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson, who spent a month early in the season as the starting left guard, graded very close to league average as a run blocker, but was so ridiculously poor in pass protection that he was ultimately benched in favor of Urbik.
This position, in short, is a bit of a mess - and a new, power-running offense being installed by coordinator Greg Roman will almost certainly yield sweeping changes here this offseason.
- Age: 32 (33 on June 25)
- 2015 cap #: unrestricted free agent
- 2014 snaps: 1,062 (100.0%)
For three years, Pears was viewed as a replaceable starting right tackle. When that finally happened this past summer, the situation was so dire up front that departed head coach Doug Marrone still viewed Pears as one of his five best linemen, and therefore shoehorned him inside as the starting right guard. While the left guard position was in flux, Pears at least gave the Bills availability at that spot; not much else went right. After five seasons in Buffalo, Pears is now a free agent, and it is exceedingly difficult to envision the team making an effort to bring him back.
- Age: 29 (30 on August 26)
- 2015 cap #: $3.35M ($725k savings if cut)
- 2014 snaps: 131 (12.3%)
Doug Whaley and Marrone gave Williams a shockingly lucrative free agent contract last offseason, cementing his status as the starting left guard despite an iffy track record. Two and a half iffy performances did little to change the perception of Williams before a back injury cost him the remainder of the season. Now entering the second year of his four-year deal, it's difficult to envision him being a long-term fixture in Roman's power running scheme, but given the level of investment made in him and the dire situation of the position, it's far more likely than not that Williams will be competing for a starting job this summer.
- Age: 29 (30 on September 23)
- 2015 cap #: $3.68M ($2.28M savings if cut)
- 2014 snaps: 622 (58.6%)
In 2011 and 2012, Urbik established himself as a competent starting right guard in a Chan Gailey offense that spread the field and asked its linemen, predominantly, to zone block. He was good enough, in fact, to earn an extension on par with the deal Williams signed last offseason; he was making starter's money. Ultimately, however, Urbik fell out of favor with the previous coaching staff, to the point where he was only re-inserted into the lineup when nearly every other option was exhausted. The Bills might be tempted to let Urbik compete for a starting job in Roman's offense, but they might be even more tempted to free up nearly $2.3 million in cap space by releasing him, too.
- Age: 24 (25 on December 27)
- 2015 cap #: $558k ($414k savings if cut)
- 2014 snaps: 312 (29.4%)
Richardson is intriguing for two reasons: he's the only player at this position that offers any sort of long-term upside, and by a wide margin, he's the best fit for a power running offense. This former fifth-round pick is at his best as a run blocker, and was easily the Bills' best run-blocking interior lineman last season (which, no, doesn't say much on the whole, but it's significant as it relates to 2015). Richardson proved incapable of consistently handling even the basics of pass protection, however, which ultimately led to his benching. If he can take steps toward competency as a pass protector, then there's no question that he has the goods as a run blocker to eventually emerge as a starter in this offense. The Bills just shouldn't be in a rush to hand him anything.
D.J. Morrell and William Campbell spent parts of the 2014 season on the Bills' practice squad, and were retained on reserve/future contracts after the regular season ended. The team added two more reserve/future players to the team from outside of the organization in the days after the close of the season, as well: Alex Kupper and Darryl Johnson. It is exceedingly unlikely that the Bills consider any of these players more than camp competition.
For the past several seasons, Roman has coached up some of the best run-blocking lines in football, and he'll strive to do that in Buffalo, as well. He is used to working with players like Mike Iupati (PFF's No. 2 ranked guard in 2014) inside, and so it's difficult to imagine him being thrilled with the state of affairs at the Bills' guard position. (But before you point out Iupati's pending free agency, the Bills have shown no evidence of wanting to invest big money at that position, so their pursuing Iupati seems, at least for now, highly unlikely.)
By my count, the Bills have two players that they can reasonably sell as competitors to start (Richardson and Williams), and a third that fits that same bill, but would make more sense to cut (Urbik). In terms of needs, then, the Bills could really use two starting guards this offseason - and they may need to invest a bit more than they have previously been willing to invest to make that happen.