When the dust settled on the first wave of NFL free agency, there was a bevy of activity for the Bills when it came to addressing their offensive line. While it was no surprise to see them spend money to bolster their offensive front, the quantity of offensive linemen signed was unexpected.
Buffalo signed six linemen in all with three guards, two tackles and a premier center. Yes, the line was in need of upgrades, but why did the Bills lean so heavily toward free agency with almost no consideration in depending to some degree on the NFL draft?
It’s likely due to the general consensus that the offensive line class may lack elite top end talent.
“Offensive line-wise, while there's not a premier guy, somebody that's a Top 5 lock that we've seen in some previous years,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “I think it's a really, really good group, especially once you get to the middle of the first round probably all the way to the middle of the 3rd and around the 4th round range, really good offensive line.”
“(Florida’s) Jawaan Taylor, (Washington State’s) Andre Dillard and (Alabama’s) Jonah Williams are locks to go in the first round. Cody Ford is likely out of Oklahoma,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “After that there’s a drop off. Kaleb McGary out of Washington is a day two player and (Ole Miss’) Greg Little has excellent athleticism. Is he going to be able to maximize his potential? He has not this point. He has to get stronger and more physical. You get into the later rounds at tackle after that.”
Bills GM Brandon Beane has admitted that the quality of a position class in a particular draft year can influence your plan in free agency. And he confirmed that was the case this year.
“It definitely did,” said Beane. “If there are positions we feel are thin in the draft, and there were, we knew we had to be more calculated to hit on that need in free agency so we don’t get desperate. What happens is when there are thin positions everybody else sees it too. GMs are like, ‘I know it’s a round early, but I’m going to take him to fill the need.’ You want to try to prevent that because you don’t want to be drafting guys in the first round that you have second round grades on.”
McShay says the guard class is deeper than tackle with prospects that could challenge for a starting role as rookies into the fourth round. That could present some interesting opportunities for Buffalo despite signing Spencer Long and Jon Feliciano.
“Guard is a really good class,” said McShay. “In the second, third and fourth round you can get some really good players. Chris Lindstrom from Boston College has been a very productive, steady player for BC. Dru Samia and Ben Powers from Oklahoma are day two picks and quality players, tough guys. Connor McGovern from Penn State has talent, third round. Beau Benschauwel from Wisconsin is another one. Nate Davis from Charlotte is a smaller school guy with a lot of ability. There’s good depth.”
And as intriguing as some of those prospects might be there’s no denying the widening gap between the college and pro game when it comes to run blocking and three-point stances, two parts of the pro game that are almost non-existent in the offensive schemes of some schools.
With NFL practice time limited the time to coach up a rookie that might need a little time on the job could prompt a team like Buffalo, which had to revamp it’s offensive line, to rely a bit more on young veterans who have playing experience in the league.
“In this era of whether it's such little practice time, the prevailing opinion might be, ‘Oh look at all these physical tools we like. We can make him a player,’” said The Ringer’s Robert Mays. “That's really dangerous at those positions.”
Nowhere is it more dangerous than at center, where you need a player with experience in making the line calls at the NFL level. Someone who is capable of executing their own assignments while leading the rest of the line and handling protection calls and pre-snap checks to take the burden off QB Josh Allen.
That’s why the Bills paid a premium for free agent Mitch Morse.
“It’s very important to have a good center,” said Beane. “Not only one that can physically play, but is a very good communicator. You’ve got to adjust and a good center takes a little bit of the pressure off the quarterback with the twists and stunts and all that’s going on with disguises pre-snap. I was in Carolina for a good while and we had Ryan Kalil and he took a lot of pressure off Cam Newton. That’s the guy we spent the most money on and I do think it’s an important position.”
Buffalo currently has 13 linemen on their roster. It doesn’t mean they’re averse to adding another via the draft. However, knowing all the new pieces that will need to fit together up front, acquiring players with NFL experience should help to smooth the transition. And if it’s just one or two rookies who are part of the mix it’ll be that much easier to blend in.