The Buffalo Bills had one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League last season, allowing a league-low 23 sacks. Most of that success has come from the likes of Pro-Bowl caliber interior linemen Andy Levitre and Eric Wood. The interior portion of the line is just as important as the outside linemen, as they are forced to take on the big and physical defensive tackles that vie to collapse the pocket. So let's take a look at how the interior line of the Bills stacks up.
Andy Levitre has quickly established himself as one of the best left guards in the National Football League, and has repeatedly earned high praise from ProFootballFocus.com, a website dedicated to football sabermetrics.
He is also proved essential to the Bills as a blocker in space, showing real quality while pulling. At 305 pounds, Levitre isn’t necessarily the ideal size to be a dominant, road-grading run blocker, but he augments his solid in-line play with some quality efforts on the move; a job that leaves many other offensive linemen looking lost.
Levitre has started all 48 games since being selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, and his play has consistently gotten better.
General manager Buddy Nix stated that he wants to bring back Levitre and fellow guard Kraig Urbik, both of whom are entering the final year of their respective contracts, telling BuffaloBills.com:
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“We definitely want those guys back. I’ve told them. They know that. As far as us working on contracts we’ve been kind of busy. I think they want to be back and we want them back and when the time comes we’ll get started on it.”
The Bills took a flier selecting offensive linemen Michael Jasper in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft, mainly due to his massive size and his surprising agility. Playing at 440 pounds at Bethel College, he has trimmed down to the 380-pound range, and is now practicing at left guard with the second team unit, after flip-flopping between nose tackle and offensive line.
The Bills' lead journalist Chris Brown had this to say about Jasper during Offseason Training Activities:
Jasper was working as a second unit guard this week in OTAs. He appears to have put on some weight, which can happen unfortunately when you’re a big man. Still, he appeared to move well even though it’s far from real football for linemen in this no pads setting.
He’s got an uphill battle. With entrenched starters in Andy Levitre and Kraig Urbik at the guard spots and Chad Rinehart coming off a strong 2011 season as the swing guard, it’s going to be difficult for him to make the roster. Add in sixth-round pick Mark Asper, who can play guard and center and the task is even tougher. We’ll know better once the pads go on.
It could be tough for Jasper to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, but his raw ability and potential could earn him a position back on the practice squad, due to the depth at guard, with his main competition being Chad Rinehart, who appeared in 12 games last season.
Eric Wood has the potential to be one of the best centers in the National Football League—if he can stay healthy.
Last season he started nine games before blowing out his ACL, which required surgery. However, he is optimistic that he is on pace to make it back in time for training camp.
“Going through this before people ask me all the time, ‘How do you go through this?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve already done this. Although it’s not fun being in the training room every day it’s your job and it’s kind of the way you’ve got to approach it. There are much worse things to be doing in the world than rehabbing to come back and do your dream job. So that’s kind of the way I approach it day in and day out.”
A former first round draft pick out of Louisville, Wood has played well when he can stay on the field, but the big question mark is whether he can do so, especially after coming off of two major leg injuries.
Colin Brown started his only professional football game in the season finale of the 2011 Buffalo Bills' campaign, in place of Eric Wood. He appeared in 11 games last year, and the 6'7" 326 pounder out of Missouri displayed some decent ability in the run and pass game.
He saw first team reps at center throughout Offseason Training Activities in place of Wood, and he should be a lock to be the second-string center, due to his familiarity with the team's offense.
The Bills continued to add depth to the offensive line in the 2012 NFL draft, selecting Oregon's Mark Asper in the sixth round. Asper played guard, tackle, and center during his collegiate career, so he has a feel for all of the positions on the offensive line, which could help his chances during training camp.
The Buffalo Bills claimed guard Kraig Urbik off of waivers following his release by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The move proved to be solid, with Urbik starting 13 games last year, including some time holding down the center position. This offseason as a restricted free agent, he signed his one-year, $2.6 million tender to retain his services for the 2012 season.
His play was solid in the pass game, however he still needs some improvement in his run blocking. For now, he is a solid option at right guard, and will be in competition with Chad Rinehart for the starting role.
Chad Rinehart was the main competition with Kraig Urbik last season, starting 12 games at both guard spots. Like Urbik, he was retained on his restricted free agent tender. He appears to be content with his current role on the team, telling BuffaloBills.com that he is happy how everything panned out.
"A year later getting a chance to start I feel I’ve shown them what I’m capable of. At the same time I still think I can improve and get better.”
Rinehart is a better run blocker than Urbik, which will make the right guard training camp battle an interesting one to keep an eye on.