From 2011-2017, the Buffalo Bills had only one center. Eric Wood, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2009, manned the pivot for the final seven years of his career. However, he began his professional career at another position: right guard. The reason? The center position is remarkably difficult for a young player to handle.
If you remember the man who played center next to Wood for those first two years, then you’ll know that he wasn’t a phenomenal player, but he was a reliable veteran. Geoff Hangartner came to Buffalo as a free agent following the 2008 season. His rookie contract had just expired with the Carolina Panthers, and the Bills needed someone to play center while they allowed their young prospect to develop.
The current iteration of the Buffalo Bills find themselves in a similar position. Last year, they signed Russell Bodine, a four-year veteran whose rookie contract had expired with the Cincinnati Bengals. This year, the Bills need to replace at least two starters along the offensive line, as underwhelming veterans John Miller and Jordan Mills are unrestricted free agents. Bodine was adequate, though unspectacular, at center, and rookie Wyatt Teller was inconsistent at left guard. Even Dion Dawkins, the second-year left tackle, struggled at times.
In short, the Buffalo offensive line group was a mess for most of 2018. As they look to reshape and rebuild the unit, they will need to seek new blood from both the free-agent pool and the draft in order to provide the kind of protection necessary. If the Bills want to make positive strides next season, they cannot entrust the center position to a rookie. They must sign a free agent—a veteran—to help Josh Allen along in his development.
A veteran center can do wonders for a young quarterback. The most important thing he can do (aside from the obvious, which is to block well) is help the quarterback set and define protections before the snap. This is part of Allen’s game where he absolutely needs work, and it was his greatest struggle early on in the 2018 season. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll did well to help Allen via scheme in the latter portion of the year, and Russell Bodine deserves some credit for helping Allen, as well.
If the Bills truly want to improve the center position, they probably won’t be able to do so immediately via the NFL Draft. Prospects like Elgton Jenkins, Michael Jordan, and Ross Piersbacher may develop into fine NFL players, but to ask them to step into the middle of Buffalo’s offensive line with the responsibilities of a professional center is asking an awful lot.
While Allen made great strides over the second half of the season, he is still a young, raw prospect who needs help. Buffalo could help him tremendously by pursuing a veteran center to pair with him for the next few seasons. Could Buffalo do what they did with Wood, drafting a center in the early-to-middle rounds and playing him at guard while he learns the game? Absolutely. However, expecting that rookie to pair with a quarterback who will make his 13th career start in Week 1 of 2019 and communicate with what should be an almost entirely new offensive line is an awful big ask of any rookie.
The Bills haven’t started a rookie center since 1986. Of course, that year the team paired Kent Hull with another rookie, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. While both men were playing in their first NFL season, they each had played for at least two years professionally in the USFL prior to that time. Hull came to the NFL understanding protections and blocking schemes, just like any veteran free-agent signing would.
In 2019, the Bills should again sign a veteran free-agent center rather than drafting one to start immediately.