The Buffalo Bills need help on their offensive line, and it appears that whatever help does arrive in 2015 will come in less proven form. While we've combed through 2015 NFL Draft prospects aplenty, today we'll talk about one option already on the roster, who has a one-year head start on anyone the team might find in the draft this May.
Fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson saw limited action in his 2014 rookie season, but we saw enough of him to get an idea of his general strengths and weaknesses. While he may not be the most exciting option for the Bills at guard, the anticipated style of Buffalo's offense in 2015 matches his strengths in a way that could warrant serious playing time.
Richardson played virtually every snap at left guard in four straight games, starting in Week 4 against the Houston Texans. That game started out pretty terribly and never got much better, but it's not exactly fair to put a fifth-round rookie up against J.J. Watt. We'll give him a pass for that first game.
From there, Richardson showed some improvement, but certain inconsistencies lingered. After Buffalo's Week 7 thriller over the Minnesota Vikings, Richardson would see only a handful of snaps of any kind until the second half of the team's Week 17 tilt at the New England Patriots.
Based on that action, here's what we came away with after watching all of said snaps.You can find detailed examples in the gallery above, as referenced below.
At 6'5" and 340 pounds, Richardson is a block of a man who can be a handful when he positions all of that weight to his advantage. He has the strength to match even some of the best defensive tackles in the league, as seen in Play 1 when he handles Vince Wilfork for a run.
Unfortunately, Richardson was more of a train and less of a truck in his brief stint as an NFL starter. Take him off the tracks, and you have a different beast altogether. While he usually had good push in runs up the middle, Richardson's game wavered once the play called for the linemen to run laterally on sweeps or tosses. And that's all before we get to the pass blocking.
Athleticism issues plagued Richardson in no area more than in pass protection. His feet weren't nearly nimble enough on a consistent basis, which meant his first step off the snap almost always put him on his heels, prey to the bevy of top defensive tackles he faced in his appearances.
Those struggles culminated in the fourth quarter of the Vikings game, when Richardson was burned for two sacks in the second half, which was probably the immediate reason the coaching staff opted to shut him down. The first of those sacks wasn't entirely Richardson's fault, but the second (as seen in Play 2) was largely a matter of Richardson not being quick enough on his feet, and not being aggressive enough to engage a defender when no others were near.
Richardson showed the typical mental struggles we see in rookie linemen. He had three false start penalties and a holding penalty in his initial four-game stint, but those are to be expected from rookie linemen. More concerning was his hesitation at the line of scrimmage.
A guard in pass protection is often a supplementary blocker, offering a chip on one side then sliding to another to keep multiple defenders from having leverage over his fellow lineman. As such, hesitation to disengage from one defender to get at the next can kill a play, as we see in Play 3 and Play 6.
Physically and mentally, Richardson was a step behind his peers for most of the season, but that doesn't mean he should be ruled out as a roster prospect. His spot could be safe due to the simple fact that his strengths match the purported mission statement of Greg Roman's offense. The Bills want to be a run-first squad, and that means lots of plunges up the middle to soften the defense. Such an approach benefits the big guard (as seen in Play 5), and at the very least gives Buffalo options for depth purposes.
Richardson can be an early-down hammer if called upon in that role. The Bills found enough success running behind him last season to give him a shot once more. But without an overhaul in his offseason conditioning that improves his agility and footwork, Richardson can be little more than that.
From there, we have to ask if that's the kind of guard Roman prefers. Yes, we know he likes to run, but a good running game is predicated on surprising your opponent and varying the play calls so that simple runs can work when they're unexpected.
If Richardson is a run-first guard who continues to struggle in pass protection and outside runs, the Bills' offense either becomes more predictable or less effective with him on the field. In a pinch, that might be fine, but as a regular starter, obviously that can be a problem.
Richardson still has plenty to learn about playing guard in the NFL. If he can get caught up physically and mentally this offseason, he possesses the power necessary to play a backup role on a team thin along the offensive line. At the very least, expect him to contend for a roster spot beyond the first cuts in the preseason.