Entering their second of five preseason games this summer, the Buffalo Bills are still rotating offensive linemen, attempting to figure out what their best combination up front will be heading into the 2014 regular season. That is particularly true at right guard, where Kraig Urbik, Chris Hairston, and rookie Cyril Richardson have all seen first-team reps in training camp.
That competition will be particularly noteworthy on Friday evening, with the Bills matching up against a Carolina Panthers defense that features a deep stable of defensive tackles - led by second-year pro Star Lotulelei - that helped spur the Panthers to a No. 2 overall ranking in run defense last season.
Lotulelei, a 2013 first-round pick out of Utah, is the star of a group that also includes veterans Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards, as well as promising second-year prospect Kawann Short, last year's second-round pick.
"Lotulelei and Edwards each had three sacks in 2013, which is a pretty good number for a defensive tackle," Curry Shoff of Cat Scratch Reader told me yesterday. "Lotulelei has developed himself into a pass rushing disruption, which allows guys like Greg Hardy (15 sacks in 2013) and Charles Johnson (11 sacks) to get good pressure."
While Lotulelei has flashed upside as a pass rusher, however, it's his run defense that set him apart in a stellar rookie campaign.
"In 2013, he led all Panthers defensive tackles with 42 tackles as a rookie and dominated guards and centers on runs up the middle," Shoff says. "With his added play, the Panthers jumped from No. 14 to No. 2 in stopping the run. His development will only make the defense stronger."
For as long as Lotulelei is on the field tonight, he'll prove a tremendously difficult matchup not just for center Eric Wood, who has the best job security of any Bills offensive lineman at the moment, but for Urbik, the likely first-team right guard, and especially Richardson, who will probably see first-team reps, as well.
Cole, a 34-year-old veteran that spent the early portion of his career in Green Bay, starts next to Lotulelei and is a run-down player. Short, picked a year ago out of Purdue, is Cole's pass-down complement, and faces big expectations entering his second season with the Panthers.
"Short had average numbers in 2014, but he is widely expected to grow his role on the line," Shoff told me. "He led the Panthers in 2013 in quarterback pressures and finished second in the tackle group with 30 tackles. On the just-released Panthers depth chart, he is behind Cole right now, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if he was a full-time starter going into the season."
Edwards is a name that Bills fans will be familiar with, as he spent two seasons with the Bills in 2010 and 2011 as a starter. He has been with the Panthers in the two years since, and developed into a quality rotational tackle in Carolina's 4-3 defense.
"His role is to add depth," Shoff said of Edwards. "He had 19 tackles and three sacks last season. There are a number of teams where he would be a viable option as a starter, but at 33, having this rotation will keep his legs fresh and motor running to stretch out his career."
It's a deep group of players with a variety of skills. Tonight will be an ideal night to evaluate the Bills' interior offensive linemen, not just from a position battle standpoint, but from a higher-level perspective. Buffalo's line may not see better competition in the run game for the rest of the preseason, even with Carolina's star ends, Johnson and Hardy, likely to sit the game out.