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Opinion: About “the Buffalo Bills should have done more to address offensive line” narrative

Matt Warren is Associate Director of NFL coverage for SB Nation and previously covered the Bills for Buffalo Rumblings for more than a decade.

This week has been incredibly frustrating to be a Buffalo Bills fan and content creator. Watching the game was bad enough, and then teasing out how this could impact the Bills going forward has been worse, because you have to relive the nightmare over and over again. The narrative that is causing me particular rancor is that which says Bills’ general manager Brandon Beane should have done more to address the offensive line, or worse, that he “did nothing” to address the offensive line this offseason.

It’s debunking time.

2021 Offseason

The Bills entered the offseason with four very major holes on their offensive line; Ike Boettger, Jon Feliciano, Daryl Williams, and Ty Nsekhe were all free agents. Before Buffalo could even think about improving, they needed bodies.

In February, they signed Jordan Devey for depth. Devey has 21 NFL starts in his career but no one expected him to make the final roster. (He didn’t.) He was a backstop.

On March 7, Buffalo re-signed Daryl Williams. They knew that was going to take care of at least one major hole in the starting lineup or as a top backup. With his contract, they expected him to start but had room to maneuver. The same things can be said for Jon Feliciano, who re-signed on March 14.

March 25 saw them sign OT Bobby Hart. At the time, we suggested he could be their backup OT with 67 career starts for two NFL franchises. He wasn’t good, but as experienced depth, that was acceptable and they paid him near league minimum to fill that role. He eventually landed on the practice squad in Buffalo, serving as that depth.

On March 28, Jamil Douglas and his 11 NFL starts was added to the team on a minimum deal as depth. In early April, it was Forrest Lamp and his 18 NFL starts.

April 22 came around, and Buffalo re-signed Ike Boettger. That completed their re-signing of the three top free agent interior offensive linemen from 2020. Boettger was signed to compete for a starting spot with Feliciano and former second-round pick Cody Ford.

That set the stage for a status quo return to their starting offensive line from 2020 that never saw the field together at the same time. One of them was always injured.

On April 30, they filled the final of their four offseason holes with third-round offensive tackle Spencer Brown. Brown was immediately penciled in to replace Nsekhe as the top reserve tackle. The next day, they drafted OT Tommy Doyle (5th) and OG Jack Anderson (7th).

They went on to add some deep depth options on the offensive line, but they were full of veterans and prospects on the offensive line, and not enough spots for all of them. Eventually they kept ten, cutting a handful of NFL-caliber players.

They signed three replacement-level free agent starters and drafted three rookies in addition to adding a bunch of veteran depth with starting experience. They weren’t beholden to any of those six to ten guys and chose them. They had guys they knew set a base line, plus some potential diamonds in the rough with experience in the league, and some unpolished rookies. It seemed like a good recipe.

2021 Preseason & Early Season

Jon Feliciano came back 20 lbs lighter, and according to reports, the Bills did not ask him to lose weight and were surprised by it. That was the first red flag. Ike Boettger started training camp on the Reserve/COVID list as did Dion Dawkins, who spent time in the hospital with a nasty infection. He lost weight and his conditioning slipped, so they brought him back slowly.

So once again, the Bills starting o-line didn’t have time to prep together during the offseason, but they were at least on the field together to start the year; Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Cody Ford, and Daryl Williams. Ford was the clear weak link, but as a former second-round pick, you could see why the Bills were giving him another chance.

After Ford struggled at guard and Williams struggled at tackle, the Bills kicked Williams inside to right guard and gave Brown his first NFL start on October 3. It wasn’t instant and it wasn’t every play or perfect, but the offensive line played better with the new configuration.

Injury Bug

Then they got hit by the injury bug, right after the bye. An old back injury for Spencer Brown flared up as they were coming out of the bye week. Buffalo shifted three spots, moving Ike Boettger into the lineup at left guard, flipping Feliciano from left to right guard, and kicking out Daryl Williams to his tackle spot. Tight end Dawson Knox and his blocking help missed two games with a broken hand. At this point, the Bills lead the league in points per game and points per drive. The offense is humming.

Then Feliciano was hurt late in the game against the Miami Dolphins following the bye, forcing the Bills to re-insert Cody Ford against the Tennessee Titans. And all hell broke loose.

Ford was not good against the Jacksonville Jaguars, allowing multiple pressures. Daryl Williams had mental breakdowns, allowing at least one sack on Josh Allen in a crucial moment. Dion Dawkins allowed another sack of Allen. It wasn’t just Ford, it was everywhere except possibly Morse.

What could they have done to upgrade?

Now that I’ve got more than 800 words recapping the last ten months, we can talk about difference. If you’re going to second-guess the Bills, it starts with the re-signings.

Brandon Beane knew he had four spots to fill on the offensive line as a very large part of his offseason plan. He had a holes at defensive end and cornerback, and his tight end had been underperforming. Plus, in the back of his mind he wants to re-sign his quarterback this offseason and that’s going to cost bank.

You have to assume you can’t handle all that business with meaningful picks in the draft, so you first look at free agency.

Feliciano signed for $4.4 million guaranteed. Williams signed for $9.4 million guaranteed. Boettger was a $2.1 million non-guaranteed salary.

The big fish in the IOL pond was Joe Thuney, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs on a five-year, $80 million contract. With big contracts all over their roster, it didn’t seem likely Buffalo would be in the market for a $33-million-guaranteed guard. The Bills won’t value that position to that level. Even Kevin Zeitler and his three-year, $22.5 million contract including $16 million guaranteed seems like a lot with big contracts at center and left tackle.

New York Giants guard Pat Elflein (three years, $13.5 million) is the closest in line to Felciano’s total deal (three years, $14.4 million) but the Giants guaranteed $6 million for Elflein including $3.9 million of his 2022 salary while Feliciano only had $4.4 million guaranteed.

While Feliciano is 59.1 in Pro Football Focus grade this offseason, Elflein is at 51.2. Zeitler is a 71.4 and Thuney is 72.9. Buffalo would have had to pony up to get better guard play.

In the 2021 NFL Draft, Landon Dickerson was the first IOL selected after Greg Rousseau. He was pick 37 and has had a rough start to his year as the Philadelphia Eagles’ left guard and center-in-waiting. Aaron Banks at pick 48 hasn’t played yet for the 49ers.

Right after the Bills picked DE Boogie Basham, two centers were taken; the Green Bay Packers took Josh Myers and the Chiefs took Creed Humphrey. At the time, Beane said he didn’t have any other players with as high of a grade as Basham and would have traded down if the DE wasn’t available. Whether that’s smoke or not is up for debate, but if it’s true, the Bills didn’t have high grades on either of those players. Humphrey is playing lights out for Kansas City but Myers is struggling. In hindsight, with Basham on the inactive list, it might have been better to go with Humphrey. At the time, I said I would have rather seen another position like DT, OG, or CB at second-round spot, but it’s hard for me to argue against more pass rush when I’ve been complaining about them not addressing it for years.

So in a perfect scenario, they sign Zeitler instead of Boettger (even with the big difference in salary) and draft Creed Humphrey to play guard for a year or two until you move on from Mitch Morse. That’s fair to be critical, but it’s also a two-move parlay involving a second-round draft pick projection.

Then there is the trade deadline, where folks were saying the Bills should have traded for someone—anyone—to address the interior offensive line and solidify a Super Bowl run. The only upgrade I saw on the trading block was Jacksonville Jaguars guard Andrew Norwell. He restructured his deal in the offseason and lowered his base salary. Still, his price tag to Buffalo would have been $5.3 million. In order to fit that under their cap, they would have had to do some cap gymnastics with Dion Dawkins and his contract. They could have made it work at the expense of future cap space. I was not in favor of this move.

Line play around the league is pretty bad

If you are like me and don’t watch other NFL teams very much, you probably wouldn’t know how bad offensive line play is around the league. It’s bad. How bad is it?

Bobby Hart, who Bills fans were more than happy to get rid of, has started a game and played three total for the Tennessee Titans this year. Quinton Spain, cut during the 2020 season, has started 17 games for the Cincinnati Bengals in the meantime.

Like I said, only two of the guards on the free agent market signed for more than Feliciano this offseason, but not because he made a lot. Teams aren’t letting quality or even mediocre offensive linemen get to free agency.

What went wrong?

Bruce Nolan and I were chewing the fat on this the other day, and Bruce said he thinks the Bills overestimated what they were going to get from Feliciano and Ford. In Feliciano’s case, it makes even more sense given his unexpected weight loss.

I think that’s a fair summary.

Buffalo had three options for two guard spots, and they hoped (assumed?) two would separate themselves as “iron sharpens iron”. When none of them did, especially opposite Feliciano, they saw Spencer Brown adapting well and moved Williams inside. It was a desperate move, but an effective one. Then injuries derailed the plan on the short-term.

What went right?

The Bills are on par with their offensive stats from 2020. They were leading the league in points per drive and scoring average heading into last week. That’s with Ford starting multiple games and they’ve been better with him out of the lineup.

Moving forward

The Bills can’t really do anything to address their offensive line anymore, unless you think it’s time to give Ryan Bates some run at a guard spot. They played their trump card moving Brown into the lineup and Williams over. The starting five when healthy will be Dawkins, Feliciano, Morse, Williams, and Brown with Boettger, Ford, and Bates as backups. Jamil Douglas is around until Feliciano returns and Tommy Doyle is the developmental break-in-case-of-emergency depth.

In all, it was one game where the line played really bad and even though offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up help, it wasn’t enough. In other games, they played well enough for the offense to be successful. They’ll get back Knox and Feliciano and Brown and be just fine and even able to handle a longer-term injury up front. The sky is not falling and the solution is adequate.

It’s also the second-biggest need they have heading into the offseason, in my opinion, and has been since the start of the year. Even Super Bowl winners have weak points. Beane will address them, just maybe not how you want.