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Buffalo Bills Offensive Line: Team Has Youth, Upside At Tackle

Doug Marrone - a former offensive lineman and NFL offensive line coach - has a young group of Buffalo Bills tackles to work with entering his first season as head coach.

Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE

Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone was a college and NFL offensive lineman during his brief playing career. He was an offensive line coach in college and with the New York Jets, and when he was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, he also coached their offensive line. Quite frankly, Bills fans shouldn't be too worried about the team's offensive line based on Marrone's presence alone; he'll have a quality line in Buffalo.

He may already have a quality line, too. The Bills have had some revolving door situations at certain positions along their offensive front over the last several years, but they've been quite good up front in 2011 and 2012. Within the context of the quick-paced passing and zone run blocking offense installed by departing head coach Chan Gailey, Buffalo's current group of linemen performed admirably.

Marrone will bring his own player preferences for linemen with him, and Nathaniel Hackett his own offense. Up until now, the Bills have looked at the tackle position differently than other NFL teams, preferring behemoths (and often sacrificing some athleticism to get size) to the more traditional nimble-footed edge athletes that dominate today's game. Whether or not Marrone is comfortable with that prototype at tackle remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that he'll mandate immediate changes at the position regardless of his preferences, considering the solid amount of young talent he's got to work with.

Cordy Glenn

  • Age: 23 (24 in September 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make a fully guaranteed $561,145 base salary in 2013.

Listen to GM Buddy Nix talk about Glenn sometime; Buffalo's front office clearly loves its 2012 second-round draft pick, the one that started 13 games on the blind side as a rookie with a good deal of success. Nix and company believe that they've found their franchise left tackle, and there's evidence to suggest they're right.

Glenn is huge - 6'5" and 343 pounds - but agile. Players that big shouldn't move as quickly and effectively as Glenn can, which has led to some devastating second-level blocks and a surprising level of ability to play tackle for a prospect most considered a guard entering last April's selection meeting. He's got everything that Nix wants in a left tackle, and the long-standing comparisons to Marcus McNeill may end up proving themselves warranted.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. Glenn missed three games as a rookie with an ankle injury, so durability is something to keep an eye on. He committed his fair share of penalties as a rookie, and had a propensity to start games off very slowly before rebounding and playing well for the duration. Then there's the fact that the new coaching staff, led by Marrone, may be looking for different traits in their tackles (see our discussion points below). Stopping short of inking him in as the franchise left tackle, however, doesn't mean that his future is any less bright. Glenn's a great blocker, and easily the best long-term offensive line prospect on the team. He should only get better working for Marrone and Pat Morris.

Chris Hairston

  • Age: 23 (24 in April 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.

Hairston was supposed to compete with Glenn to be Buffalo's starting left tackle last summer - that's how highly the Bills think of Hairston, considering that Nix has publicly praised Glenn so frequently. In the end, an injury to the next name on our list forced Hairston to spend most of training camp and pre-season play starting at right tackle, effectively ending his campaign to start on the other side.

In two years, the 6'6", 326-pound Hairston has started 15 games at left and right tackle for the Bills (he replaced Glenn on the blind side when Glenn was injured in 2012), and the story on him hasn't changed much: he's not a great athlete, but he's an above average run blocker that struggles occasionally with speed off the edge in pass protection. He's a smart player with good toughness and instincts. That was the book on him when the Bills made him a fourth-round pick out of Clemson in 2011, and that's still the book on him.

Hairston's abilities and upside are not the concern; it's his feet. Various ankle and foot injuries have cost him a handful of games in his first two pro seasons - a loose piece of bone that required surgery landed him on IR late in the 2012 season - and that's something to be concerned with moving forward. Durability may be a myth for Bills offensive linemen (Andy Levitre notwithstanding), but if Hairston can stay healthy, he looks like he could emerge as a dependable long-term starter.

Erik Pears

  • Age: 30 (31 in June 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Owed a $100,000 roster bonus at the start of the new league year, plus a $50,000 workout bonus during the season. Scheduled to make $2.1 million in base salary in 2013.

For a Bills team that was putrid at right tackle for a number of years before his arrival, Pears was a revelation in 2011, when he started all 16 games and was often good (while rarely dipping below passable). That work got him a healthy three-year contract extension; after a terrible 2012 season in which he fought through a hip injury to appear in just seven games before landing on IR and scheduling a second hip surgery. On the field - again, hampered by injury - Pears was bad. Hairston, his replacement, also struggled at times, but was better in general and a night-and-day improvement in the run game.

Buffalo has had enough issues with depth at tackle to safely assume that Pears will return to the team in 2013, but it's also safe to assume that he'll need to beat out Hairston if he wants to remain the team's starting right tackle. That might be much easier said than done.

Sam Young

  • Age: 25 (26 in June 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $630,000 in base salary in 2013.

Heading into training camp last summer, there was serious doubt that Young would even make the team, given that the Bills had just spent two draft picks on offensive tackles and re-signed a veteran starter. By the time we got to the last four games of the season, Young was Buffalo's starting right tackle, and he was doing an admirable job in a tight spot. The 6'8", 316-pound Young may be the least talented natural athlete on Buffalo's roster, but he's made himself a dependable spot starter nonetheless thanks to outstanding smarts, top-notch intangibles and his huge frame. He's the type of player that will probably never be handed a starting job, but will nonetheless stick around in the league for a while as a well-regarded depth player. His ability to kick in and play guard is an added plus, as well.

Zebrie Sanders

  • Age: 23 (24 in December 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.

Last April, the Bills used a fifth-round pick on the 6'6", 318-pound Sanders with the idea that they could develop him behind the three tackles at the top of this list. Unfortunately, Sanders struggled mightily in his first NFL training camp, to the point that there was serious doubt as to whether he'd beat out Young for a roster spot even before he landed on IR out of the blue (read into that what you will). Sanders is still a talented athlete with upside, but how he fits into the team's long-term plans is an enigma. For now, we'll put him in the "fighting for a roster spot" category.

Thomas Welch

  • Age: 25 (26 in June 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $630,000 in base salary in 2013.

Welch (6'6", 300 pounds) was added to the active roster as insurance after both Pears and Hairston landed on IR. He's bounced around the league for three years as a former seventh-round draft pick in New England, and looks to have an inside track on coming back to compete for a roster spot in training camp.

Adam Grant

  • Age: 26 (27 in May 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.

A late-season addition to the practice squad as depth was getting thin, the 6'6", 320-pound Grant is a former undrafted free agent out of Arizona. He was signed to a reserve/future contract earlier this month, and will be given a shot at making the roster this summer.

Free agency outlook: Without any impending free agents at this position, and with a quality stockpile of young, in-development talent, it's tough to envision the Bills actively pursuing free agent offensive tackles. (Offensive guards and maybe even centers, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.) The one thing to keep an eye on is whether or not the team keeps Pears at his current salary; there are no indications that they won't (yet), so that might not even be worth wasting brain cells for.

2013 NFL Draft outlook: Unless the Bills find themselves in a situation where they're on the clock and the best player on the board by a large margin is a tackle, and they can't help themselves but to take him, it's hard to imagine the team drafting a tackle - unless they plan on moving him to guard, where there may be a good deal of change this off-season. With three quality tackle prospects turning 24 this calendar year, the position doesn't need to be a draft day priority.

Discussion topics: These are your discussion starters for the conversation to follow.

  • How comfortable are you with Hairston as the long-term right tackle direction given his limitations and his durability concerns?
  • Are you at all concerned that the Bills' coaching staff will radically alter the front office's preferred traits in a tackle, causing unnecessary personnel shifts (i.e. moving Glenn to guard, making slow-footed athletes like Hairston and Young obsolete)?