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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Interior offensive linemen

The Bills shuffled the deck early and often while trying to find a combination that worked

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills had issues with protection during the 2021 season. After an offseason where general manager Brandon Beane was able to re-sign the entire starting unit from the 2020 season, that wasn’t something that was expected this year. However, the nature of the NFL is to expect the unexpected, and Beane prepared accordingly.

Just because he locked in all of his 2020 starters didn’t mean that Beane would rest on his laurels. He continued to do what he does best, maintaining a stable of depth along the front line that, eventually, provided the Bills with some relief towards the end of the year. The question now isn’t whether the Bills need to upgrade along the offensive line—I think it’s fairly obvious that they do—but rather just how much of an investment in draft capital or finances they want to make while securing that upgrade.

In our final look at the offensive side of the ball for our state of the Bills’ roster series, we look at the interior offensive linemen.

Mitch Morse

Contract status for 2022: Signed; final year of four-year contract ($11.25 million cap hit; $3.75 million dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 29 (30 on 4/21/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 1,167 offensive snaps (97.41% of team total)
Key statistics: 2 sacks allowed, 25 pressures allowed, 2 tackles for loss allowed, 5 penalties against, 28 penalty yards against

Morse had always been a quietly consistent stud along the front for the Bills, as his athleticism and ability to help quarterback Josh Allen set protections have helped the Bills to transform themselves into an offensive juggernaut. In 2021, though, it became apparent that Morse is not only a solidifying force up front, but he’s arguably Buffalo’s best offensive lineman. This past year, at least, Morse was the most consistent, as he remained healthy for a full season for just the third time in his seven-year career. Last year, there were many who assumed that Morse would not finish the four-year, $44 million contract he signed prior to the 2019 season. However, Morse is worth much more to this team than the nearly $8 million in cap relief the Bills would gain by releasing him. I’d bet that it’s more likely that the Bills extend Morse, which should help to space his cap hit out over more years. A three-year contract extension signed prior to the free-agent period is my bet.

Jon Feliciano

Contract status for 2022: Signed; second year of three-year contract ($4,967,638 cap hit; $1.5 million dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 29 (30 on 2/10/2022)
Playing time: 9 games (6 starts), 442 offensive snaps (36.89% of team total), 13 special teams snaps (3% of team total)
Key statistics: 0 sacks allowed, 16 pressures allowed, 1 tackle for loss against, 3 penalties against, 25 penalty yards against

Feliciano began the season as a starter, but questions about his weight loss and a possible loss of functional strength as a result followed him throughout the preseason. When the regular season began, Feliciano struggled mightily against Cam Heyward and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Feliciano started six of Buffalo’s first seven games, missing Week 4 with a concussion. He injured his calf during Buffalo's Week 8 win over the Miami Dolphins, which resulted in a stint on injured reserve. While he returned in the minimum time allowed, he had been supplanted in the starting lineup, first by Ike Boettger and then by Ryan Bates. Feliciano also contracted COVID-19 in late December. It was a disappointing season for one of the Bills’ more versatile linemen.

Cody Ford

Contract status for 2022: Signed; final year of four-year rookie contract ($2,388,741 cap hit; $869,994 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 25 (26 on 12/28/2022)
Playing time: 15 games (7 starts), 485 offensive snaps (40.48% of team total), 73 special teams snaps (16.82% of team total)
Key statistics: 2 sacks allowed, 26 pressures allowed, 0 tackles for loss allowed, 3 penalties against, 23 penalty yards against

Speaking of disappointing seasons, the jury seems to have rendered a verdict on Ford, and it isn’t pretty. Buffalo’s second-round choice in the 2019 NFL Draft began the year as the team’s starting right guard, but he was benched after just three games where he was a constant source of frustration for the offense and Bills fans alike. He made four more spot starts—the ugly 9-6 road loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the ugly blowout loss at home against the Indianapolis Colts, and wins over the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers—but it was clear that those starts were more a result of a lack of healthy options than some sort of positive report on Ford’s performance. With that said, there were some positive notes from the latter two games. The Bills realize that Ford can’t be relied upon to be the starter at any position up front, and while they would receive marginal cap savings by releasing him, it’s more likely that the team keeps him for the final year of his rookie contract before allowing him to leave next offseason.

Ryan Bates

Contract status for 2022: Unsigned; RFA (projected Right of First Refusal tender $2.433 million according to Over the Cap)
Age: 24 (25 on 2/14/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (4 starts), 294 offensive snaps (29.54% of team total), 83 special teams snaps (19.12% of team total)
Key statistics: 0 sacks allowed, 3 pressures allowed, 1 tackle for loss allowed, 1 penalty against, 15 penalty yards against

Just like all of us predicted, Buffalo’s jack-of-all-trades reserve lineman turned out to be the missing piece up front, as Buffalo’s late-season resurgence on offense coincided with Bates entering the starting lineup at left guard. All sarcasm aside, Bates was marvelous in his six starts (two playoff games, as well), and the Bills responded by adding a fantastic rushing attack to an already-phenomenal passing game. As a restricted free agent, Buffalo has the option to tender him a contract before he can test the market, and the team will almost certainly do just that. Keeping Bates is darn near essential, at this point, and I’d even go so far as to say that the job at left guard is his to lose next year.

Daryl Williams

Contract status for 2022: Signed; second year of three-year contract ($9.925 million cap hit; $3.6 million dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 29 (30 on 8/31/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 1,172 offensive snaps (97.83% of team total), 83 special teams snaps (19.12% of team total)
Key statistics: 4 sacks allowed, 40 pressures allowed, 1 tackle for loss allowed, 6 penalties against, 39 penalty yards against

The veteran offensive lineman led the Bills in offensive snaps for the second straight season, as his health has been a steadying factor up front. His versatility came in handy this year, too, as he began the year at right tackle before kicking inside to guard after Ford was removed from the starting lineup. Whenever Williams had to move back out to tackle, it wasn’t very pretty—a sharp departure from his excellent 2020 season. His situation is an interesting one, as the Bills clearly value his ability, but they also need to clear cap space. Williams represents one of the team’s higher cap figures, so he’s a sneaky cut candidate even though he’s been one of the team’s more reliable players over the last two years.

Jacob Capra

Contract status for 2022: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 (projected cap hit of $705,000; $0 dead cap)
Age: 23 (24 on 11/2/2022)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

Capra was born in Folsom, California, which makes me think of Johnny Cash. PFR has him listed as Joey, his middle name, which makes me think of Albert Belle. His last name makes me think of It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra. He was a high school teammate of Tommy Doyle. He was elevated for one game, Buffalo’s 31-14 win over the Carolina Panthers, but he did not appear in the game. Capra played college football at San Diego State, where he started games at left guard, left tackle, and right tackle over his career.

Ike Boettger

Contract status for 2022: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 27 (28 on 10/5/2022)
Playing time: 15 games (10 starts), 636 offensive snaps (53.09% of team total), 71 special teams snaps (16.36% of team total)
Key statistics: 1 sack allowed, 17 pressures allowed, 4 tackles for loss allowed, 2 penalties against, 10 penalty yards against

The former undrafted free agent had worked his way into a full-time starting role, locking down the let guard job midway through the season, when disaster struck. Boettger tore his left Achilles tendon on December 26. While it’s possible that he will be ready to play in September, the Bills can’t bet on it. Kyle Trimble wrote that it’s “reasonable” to expect that he’ll be ready to go for Week 1, so I’ll put my trust in the expert!

Buffalo has some decisions to make here. The team started five different combinations along the interior line—Feliciano, Morse, Ford, Williams, Boettger, and Bates all started games—so it’s clear that they were unhappy with what they had going on up front. The Bills should look to upgrade here through the draft, perhaps going as far as to use their first or second-round draft choice on an interior offensive lineman.

If it were me, I’d look to re-sign Morse to a three-year extension that spreads his 2022 cap hit out a bit better, thereby freeing some space. I’d look to trade Feliciano, whose versatility and relatively low cap number should fetch a decent return in a league desperate for offensive linemen. I’d re-sign both Bates and Boettger. I’d draft a guard pretty high up in the draft—someone I’d be comfortable having as a starter immediately, but not necessarily someone who would need to start.

The biggest decision, at least in my mind, revolves around Williams. The staff clearly loves him, but do they love him enough to have him on the roster occupying 4.7% of the salary cap? There’s definitely risk in moving on, as Williams is the only lineman to appear in all 38 games, playoffs included, that the team has played over the last two seasons. As good as Williams was in 2020, his play did drop off a bit when forced inside last year. That the team still saw that he was the best option is less an endorsement of Williams than it is an indictment of someone like Ford.

I think Williams remains on the roster through the 2022 NFL Draft, and the Bills see what happens with that selection. If they end up with a player they view as an upgrade, they may explore a trade. Otherwise, they’ll keep the status quo up front, hoping that the late-season surge in protection can roll over to 2022.

Buffalo will need to make some moves along the interior offensive line, that much is certain. What will those moves be? We’ll find out when March comes.