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NFL Free Agents 2013: Andy Levitre Will Be Hot Commodity

Buffalo Bills left guard Andy Levitre has started 64 straight games in Buffalo. Bills fans should not be surprised if consecutive start No. 65 comes in a different uniform.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills have two significant impending free agents to deal with this off-season. The first of those two - second-team All-Pro free safety Jairus Byrd - will be very easy to retain for the 2013 season even if a long-term deal can't be reached thanks to the modest salary implications for a safety that's been franchise tagged. The other - starting left guard Andy Levitre - is a more complicated matter to discuss.

There's little question that Levitre is Buffalo's best offensive lineman; he's certainly its most durable, as he's yet to miss a start going into his fifth year as an NFL starter. The franchise tag, however, is not as enticing an option for Levitre as it is for Byrd, considering the Bills would have to pay roughly $9.7 million to retain Levitre's services through that channel. The 2009 second-round pick out of Oregon State and California native has also indicated that he'd like to test the open market.

Complicating matters further: top reserve guard Chad Rinehart, who is a significant step backward in the talent department from Levitre, is also a free agent. In fact, Buffalo's interior offensive line could be in for a significant amount of change this spring.

Andy Levitre

  • Age: 26 (27 in May 2013)
  • Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent

On the field, we know what Levitre is: a very good starting left guard. Few offensive linemen have his movement skills, particularly at the second level, and Levitre is one of the league's elite interior pass protectors. Durability is not often considered a football skill, but the fact that Levitre has started every game he's had the chance to play in as a pro is nonetheless a huge asset in a league where guys are constantly beat up, particularly in the trenches.

We also know what Levitre isn't: a great phone booth run blocker. At 6'2" and 305 pounds, Levitre is not a road grading run blocker; he belongs in a hat-on-hat blocking scheme where he's sealing lines and moving forward, rather than playing at the point of attack and drive blocking on a consistent basis. That fact might limit the scope a bit on how much interest he draws on the open market, but zone blocking is extremely popular these days, so Levitre will be a hot commodity if he reaches unrestricted free agency despite his run blocking limitations.

His durability and consistency make Levitre Buffalo's best lineman. Those two reasons alone are enough for the Bills to want to retain his services. Other than the big question (quarterback), whether or not the Bills will be able to keep Levitre in town may be the biggest story line for the Bills heading into March.

Eric Wood

  • Age: 26 (27 in May 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $2.3 million in base salary in 2013.

When it comes to Wood, a former 2009 first-round draft pick, durability is the buzz word. He's missed 17 starts in his first four seasons with various injuries (two of them serious leg injuries that landed him on IR in 2009 and 2011), and has yet to complete a full 16-game schedule healthy. Then again, a torn MCL that could have cost him the last four games of the 2012 season only ultimately kept him out of two games, as he played in the Bills' last two contests despite the tear - so perhaps he's turning a corner.

When he's healthy, Wood is an excellent center. He's not great at the point of attack necessarily, as bigger nose guards often get the better of him, but he's a gamer - he won't back down from a challenge - and he's one of the most technically proficient interior linemen in the game. Wood is excellent at the second level in the run game, can dig linemen out of spots and create running lanes, and is a top-notch pass protector. More importantly, Wood is clearly a great on-field leader; when he's out of the lineup, the line very noticeably loses its edge.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Wood will do himself a lot of favors if he can make it through a full season healthy in 2013.

Kraig Urbik

  • Age: 27 (28 in September 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Scheduled to make $2.05 million in base salary in 2013.

Buffalo actually had a third impending free agent on this list in December, but made a smart move on re-signing Urbik to a four-year, $15 million extension. That makes the situation inside far less dire than it could have been, and it locks up a starter that has really emerged as a solid blocker over the last year and a half.

Urbik is not the greatest athlete, but he proved that he can make blocks on the move nonetheless in a Chan Gailey offense that demanded a lot of its offensive linemen, particularly in the screen game. A very good run blocker, Urbik also made significant strides as a pass protector, to the point where he was one of Buffalo's steadiest (read: not perfect) performers in that area. Durability is a minor concern for Urbik - he's missed three starts in each of the past two seasons - but given his level of play, better consistency and versatility (he's a very good center in a pinch), his re-signing was both reasonable and sensible.

Chad Rinehart

  • Age: 27 (28 in May 2013)
  • Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent

Had Rinehart not landed on IR early last season, he'd have played a lot more than he did (164 snaps in seven healthy games), and he'd also probably have more than 17 starts in his three seasons with the club. Rinehart is nearly exactly what teams look for in a top interior line reserve: a smart, tough, dependable blocker with experience. (The only thing he hasn't proven he can do is snap the football.) The 6'5", 307-pound Rinehart would become the top candidate for Buffalo's starting left guard job if Levitre leaves via free agency, and the Bills will probably look at re-signing Rinehart even if they lock Levitre up, too. Rinehart is a pseudo-starter for the team, and having him on board provides the Bills the luxury of depth in an area that needs depth more than most others.

David Snow

  • Age: 23 (24 in November 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Snow began his rookie season on the practice squad, but was elevated to the active roster when both Rinehart and Colin Brown wound up on Injured Reserve. Soon enough, Snow was getting a couple of starts at center while Wood was injured; while he certainly wasn't a world beater, he made some nice blocks and avoided major mistakes. Considering Wood's injury history, it's important for the Bills to have a quality backup in the pivot as long as he's here; that man may end up being Snow, a former undrafted free agent out of Texas.

Colin Brown

  • Age: 27 (28 in August 2013)
  • Contract: Restricted Free Agent

Brown looked pretty good as a spot starter at center late in the 2011 season, and did enough last summer to earn a roster spot again. He only ended up playing 19 snaps on the season before landing on IR, however, and now enters an uncertain off-season in which he's an impending RFA with a lot going on in front of him on the depth chart. The 6'7", 326-pound Missouri product brings some versatility to the table with his ability to snap; it'll be interesting to see if that versatility lands him a tender offer from Buffalo. Clearly, however, the Bills have bigger fish to fry at the position.

Keith Williams

  • Age: 24 (25 in April 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

A 2011 sixth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers (where he joins Urbik, a third-round pick of Pittsburgh's in 2009), Williams spent most of the last two seasons on Buffalo's practice squad. He got the call up to the active roster late in 2012 when the injury bug bit, and made very brief field appearances, mostly on special teams. The massive 6'5", 330-pound former Nebraska product will likely get another long look in training camp.

Chris Scott

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

Yet another former Steelers draft pick (2010, fifth round), the 6'4", 319-pound Scott came into the league as a tackle, but may have a better shot at sticking long-term as a guard - though that swing ability will certainly help his cause. He spent the latter portion of the 2012 season on Buffalo's active roster, but did not make an on-field appearance as he was forced to sit while learning Gailey's offense.

Andrew Jackson

  • Age: 24 (25 in October 2013)
  • Contract: 2013 practice squad player that did not receive a reserve/future contract in early January.

A practice squad player last season, Jackson did not get signed to a reserve/future deal in January, so it's questionable as to whether or not he'll be back with the team to fight for a roster spot this summer.

Free agency outlook: It seems more likely than not at this point that Levitre will hit the open market on March 12. That could change; the Bills' best hope of keeping Levitre is to re-sign him before that date, keeping him paired up with interior teammates Wood and Urbik (all of whom share the same agent). If they can't make that happen, however, Levitre will hit the open market, and his chances of staying in Buffalo would dwindle significantly. As one of the best offensive linemen - not just guards - on this year's free agent list, Levitre's would be a highly popular name in the world of free bidding.

For now, Rinehart's fate seems tied to Levitre's; Buffalo's interest in retaining him would skyrocket if Levitre signed elsewhere. They'll probably have interest in re-signing him regardless of Levitre, however, considering Rinehart is an experienced player that gives the team enviable depth on the interior. It would not be terribly surprising, however, if Rinehart drew interest from a couple of teams looking for a starter on the cheap.

Long story short: Buffalo would probably like to have Levitre and Rinehart back, but it's no lock that they'll get either.

2013 NFL Draft outlook: Much like Rinehart, Buffalo's interest in drafting a guard prospect will depend on whether or not they're able to re-sign Levitre. If Levitre departs, the Bills may very well end up in the market for a guard prospect that could conceivably push Rinehart (or Brown, or Snow) for a starting job immediately. If both Levitre and Rinehart leave, it will become almost mandatory for the Bills to find a starting-caliber guard somewhere.

Discussion topics: For one last time in our State of the Bills Roster series (this is the final installment until after the draft), here are your discussion starters for this positional group.

  • Contracts signed by Logan Mankins (six years, $51 million, $30 million guaranteed) and Carl Nicks (five years, $47.5 million, $31 million guaranteed) in the last two years seem out of Levitre's wheelhouse, but he shouldn't have a problem getting offers on the level with Ben Grubbs (five years, $36 million, $15.9 million guaranteed). Do you believe that type of offer would be enough for the Bills to re-sign Levitre before he hits the open market? Or is that too rich for what Levitre brings to the table?
  • Knowing his injury history, did the fact that Wood fought through an MCL tear to play in the team's final two meaningless games do anything to quell concerns about his long-term viability as a starting center?