The offseason begins in earnest for the Buffalo Bills as they seek to build on an AFC East divisional champion team that fell to the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs. With a few important unrestricted free agents, the Bills’ list of positional needs is fluid — based upon the return (or lack thereof) for pending free agents like linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Jordan Poyer.
But one of the needs that seems unlikely to be filled through a free agent re-signing is offensive guard.
Left guard Rodger Saffold played out his one-year contract with the Bills, and most observers believe that the left guard position he occupied is one that could be upgraded in 2023. Saffold surrendered 30 pressures in 2022, the most on the team, while allowing four quarterback hits, tied for second-most on the team. Coming up on his age-35 season, Saffold doesn’t figure to be a player that the Bills will rely on as their only option at left guard going into 2023.
One immediate option to fill the left guard position is to move right guard Ryan Bates there in 2023. Bates’ best play in 2021 came at left guard, before signing an offer sheet with the Chicago Bears last offseason that was matched by general manager Brandon Beane. Saffold being a player who was more comfortable at left guard, combined with Bates’ noted ability to play all five spots on the offensive line, likely contributed to the move to right guard for the former Penn State product. But with the possibility of Saffold either moving on or returning without being the preferred starter, the door is open to move Bates to left guard if the team so chooses.
The counter argument is that this move would leave the right guard spot open next to another struggling offensive lineman in second-year right tackle Spencer Brown. Brown was neck-and-neck with Saffold in pressures allowed in 2022 (Brown had 29) and gave up a whopping nine quarterback hits — most on the team by over double, despite only playing in 14 games. Putting a new face next to him in what will be a pivotal year might not be the best thing for his development.
Ultimately, it feels like the Bills could move Bates to left guard if the guard they acquire is a veteran through free agency, and they could keep Bates at right guard if the player they acquire is a draft pick. Balancing out veteran leadership on both sides of the center, so as to avoid having a developing player next to another developing player, may serve the team well.
If the Bills go the free-agency route, the cupboard isn’t completely bare. Dalton Risner, a fan-favorite draft prospect a few years back, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. Heading into his age-28 season, Risner seems likely to get an above-median offensive line contract, but he has positive metrics in pass blocking throughout his career, and a mean streak that Bills Mafia would likely appreciate. Washington’s Trai Turner is a player who likely comes with some familiarity, having been drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2014 during Beane’s tenure there. It’s notable, however, that Turner has been an unrestricted free agent before, without Buffalo having any rumored interest.
In the 2023 NFL Draft, the offensive line class is filled with players who would be good value at pick No. 27 overall, or in the second or third rounds. Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence and Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz are popular names in the interior lineman class, and both have shown well so far at the Senior Bowl.
Whatever the Bills do, any movement with Bates will likely determine whether the move is at left guard or right guard. With Beane and head coach Sean McDermott’s comments in their postseason press conferences in mind, I’d be inclined to believe the guard position will be filled in free agency rather than in the draft. One way or another, Josh Allen needs better protection in 2023 than he received in 2022.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive, and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!