As legendary coach Marv Levy used to say, "Winning is simple, but not easy."
It is not revolutionary to believe that football games are won and lost in the trenches. However, collecting and developing talent to fit one's blocking scheme is easier said than done.
Unfortunately for the Bills, they haven't been too fortunate in this department in recent history.
One Bills Drive has attempted to address the need through both free agency and the NFL draft, with both producing mediocre returns.
Since 2002, the team has used three early selections (two firsts and a second) on an offensive lineman. I probably don't have to remind Bills fans that the first of those aforementioned picks was colossal bust Mike Williams of Texas. Taken fourth overall in 2002, the Bills passed on tackles Bryant McKinnie (seventh) and Levi Jones (10th), both of whom have had much more productive careers.
The next two were taken in the same year...in 2009. C/G Eric Wood of Louisville (28th) and G/T Andy LeVitre (51st) were the only others to join that exclusive club.
The Bills have had a little luck outside the first two frames, but they have opted against retaining the players given their market value. Jonas Jennings, 2001 third-round pick, was a solid tackle that allowed for one of the best rushing years in recent memory. Jennings helped pave the way for Willis McGahee's "break-out" 2004 (I'll come clean, I took McGahee first overall the following summer in my fantasy draft).
The following offseason, the 49ers signed him to a lucrative deal to the tune of seven years, $36 million that the Bills chose not to match in restricted free agency. Even though he was one of the Bills better lineman, he proved to be injury prone and never justified that contract.
The team signed over-sized Arkansas tight end Jason Peters as an undrafted free agent in 2004. After developing him for a few seasons, he became a Pro Bowl left tackle. Demanding to be compensated accordingly, he held out until the team decided to trade him to the Eagles instead. While he is an overrated player, he is still an above-average left tackle that the Bills are yet to replace.
When Buddy Nix came aboard, he decided not to extend an RFA tender to tackle Jonathan Scott, who I thought showed flashes in 2009 as a potential starter at right tackle. He ended up signing with his former line coach's new team in Pittsburgh last season and was their starting left tackle for much of the year. He struggled at times and would be much better off at right, but that's still some talent let out the door.
Some speculate the next to follow this trend will be Demetrius Bell, who has battled injuries and consistency the past two seasons. Nevertheless, an above-average year will put him on the radar for some teams to overpay for him.
The March Madness period of professional football has also proven to have mixed results for the Bills.
In 2007, LG Derrick Dockery (seven years, $49 million) and RT Langston Walker (five years, $25 million) were inked to substantial contracts. Both underwhelmed in Buffalo and were released before finishing out their respective contracts.
C Geoff Hangartner was signed to a four-year, $10 million pact in 2009. Some like to say he's been the lone constant for the line, starting 28 out of 32 games for the team since arriving. I'd like to say he's been consistently terrible over that span.
So where are the Bills for the 2011 season?
LT Demetrius Bell
Bell started all 16 games last season while still recovering from the knee injury that robbed him of eight games in 2009. While he has the size and athleticism of his father Karl "the Mailman" Malone, he hasn't delivered on a consistent basis (sorry for the weak mailman pun).
I give Bell a lot of credit for performing how he has over the past two years though, given his circumstance. Watching him in the 2009 preseason, I felt he had a future as our starting right tackle. Instead, Dick Jauron cut the starter for the entire offseason in Walker and threw him into the starting lineup Week 1 against New England. I felt he has been an average player at best, but he shouldn't be playing left tackle.
LG Andy LeVitre
LeVitre has some experience under his belt, but, to be honest, I don't feel like he is the long-term answer at the position. He shows good range and tenacity when pull blocking and running out for screens, but he just lacks the physical attributes to ever be a good starter at the next level. He was a tackle at Oregon State, but shifted inside due to his alligator arms. Defensive lineman can get their hands on him before he can do the same, allowing for him to get taken for a ride. Personally, I feel he's more of a 'tweener that never should have received a 2nd-round grade.
C Eric Wood
The second most important position on the offensive line, I love the physicality and intelligence Wood brings to the position. I'm concerned he might struggle to stay healthy and that he'll never be 100 percent recovered from his gruesome leg injury of '09, though. I feel he can be a solid starter for us.
RG Geoff Hangartner
As I mentioned, I feel that Hangartner is a liability. However, barring a major signing like Atlanta's mauler Harvey Dahl, I can't see anyone starting over him. I've seen him get pancaked by a linebacker. C'mon, man.
RT Mansfield Wrotto
He was surprisingly effective last year, relatively shutting down stud rush LB LaMarr Woodley for instance. He's another guy that would be better served as a backup, but he's got the inside track at starting. Wrotto overachieved as an undrafted rookie, but I think he'll be replaced as soon as a better option is available.
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