We’ve started a series at Buffalo Sports Daily, highlighting the five biggest bright spots… and dark clouds on the 2011 Buffalo Bills season. Our fifth-biggest bright spot was the emergence of Scott Chandler at tight end. Today we continue with the focus on a pleasantly surprising offensive line.
Opinions often varied when projecting how the Buffalo Bills would do in 2011. Some thought the franchise would struggle to improve on their four-win total from a year ago while most predicted a six to eight win campaign was more reasonable. Of course, a few hopeless optimists outlined this as the year the Bills finally broke their over-extended playoff drought.
While forecasts for the team’s fortunes were to a certain extent divided, it was pretty much universal that the offensive line would be a calamity. The unit was often wretched in 2010 and did nothing in the offseason other than draft a rookie tackle in the fourth round to boost the talent. To make matters worse, the last year’s reserves performed so badly in the preseason they were all sent packing when final cuts came down; a group that included Geoff Hangartner, Mansfield Wrotto and Cordaro Howard.
But a funny thing happened once the games started counting and fans didn’t need to cover their eyes every time the Bills ran an offensive play. In fact, the unit flat-out became one of the biggest bright spots for 2011.
Numbers don’t always tell the truth, but they never completely lie either. Ryan Fitzpatrick was dropped just 23 times as Buffalo surrendered the fewest amount of sacks in the entire NFL. Sure, the Bills relied heavily on a quick timing offense, but the low total is undeniably impressive. The offensive line was also responsible for the running attack having the fourth-best rushing attack in the league at 4.9 yards per attempt.
Eric Wood appeared destined towards earning his first Pro Bowl berth at center before a season-ending knee injury ended his campaign after just nine games. At the time of the injury Wood was playing as good as any center in the league, including Nick Mangold and the Pouncey brothers. There’s no doubt Wood is the anchor of the line and it’s no surprise a lot of the team’s offensive struggles began after his exit.
He didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but left guard Andy Levitre garnered plenty of consideration league-wide. He also showed his versatility, stepping in admirably at left tackle while not so much at center because of injuries. Levitre will enter the final season of his four-year rookie contract in 2012 and trust me, re-signing him long term will be a priority for Buddy Nix before some of the other veterans you often read about.
Kraig Urbik may be the most unheralded of the bunch, but the right guard played as well anyone on the line. Like so many of his teammates, Urbik’s season was cut short by a knee injury, but the restricted free agent will be tendered by Nix and return as a starter in 2012 the team can count on.
Nix attempted to make a splash at right tackle, offering Atlanta free agent Tyson Clabo a contract at around $5 million per year, but when Clabo decided to return to Atlanta, Nix concluded no one else available on the market was as good as Erik Pears. Nix was rewarded for his faith as Pears was excellent for the Bills and the club rewarded his play with a three-year extension paying around $3 million per season.
If there’s one question mark going forward, it’s at left tackle. Demetrius Bell did a solid job when he was in the lineup, but played in only six games because of a shoulder injury. It was the second time in three years Bell missed significant time with injuries and despite published reports saying he will probably come back, I’m told his return is highly unlikely. Fourth-round rookie Chris Hairston was pressed into action sooner than the organization had hoped, but for the most part held his own against plenty of good competition. If he’s projected to start next season depends largely on what the Bills do with the 10th overall pick next April. Expect Nix to take a very long look at left tackle prospects Riley Reiff and Jonathan Martin.
As a whole, it was pleasantly shocking to see the Bills offensive line transform from laughingstock to a legitimate source of strength for the team.