None of them were a part of Buffalo's 53-man roster at the start of the 2013 season, but Doug Marrone sees all three of his young interior offensive line prospects as a part of Buffalo's future. Mark Asper, Antoine McClain and J.J. 'Unga are guards that Buffalo's head coach believes all have the potential to be regular starters in the NFL.
Asper (6-7, 325) was the first to join the club when he was signed to the practice squad on Sept. 1st after he was released by Jacksonville at the end of the preseason. A former sixth-round pick of the Bills in 2012, it's his second go round with Buffalo. He was promoted to the active roster in mid-October following the release of Colin Brown.
The 28-year old saw action on field goals and extra points in six games this season for a total of 26 plays. He's worked mainly at guard in his time with Buffalo.
McClain (6-5, 336) was the next to join the squad as he was signed off waivers from Oakland on Oct. 7th. Though he was on the active roster the longest among the three, McClain never appeared in a regular season game for Buffalo this season. He was inactive for the last 11 games of the year.
The 24-year old is an exclusive rights free agent who is expected to be re-signed.
Finally 'Unga (6-5, 320) was signed after he was released by Baltimore on Nov. 20th and was quickly tested on the game field. He saw brief action at right guard in the Week 14 game at Tampa Bay followed by a handful of snaps at Jacksonville and home against Miami. He was dressed, but did not see action at New England in the season finale.
"I think we have some good young players that we need to really develop," said Marrone. "We added some players onto the roster. I think they have potential to be starting-type players in the NFL, but again, that process needs to start now for them, (after) they rest their body, get in shape and work on their own. I've said it before, with the new CBA, I believe there is more accountability today on the NFL player. From now until when we report in April, we all have to be working to get better."
Marrone often spent extra time after practice with offensive line coach Pat Morris schooling up the younger offensive line prospects on techniques like footwork, hand placement and leverage. Asper, McClain and 'Unga have all been part of that post-practice work group.
'Unga, a Midwestern State product, appreciated the time on the field not long after he arrived.
"I needed this opportunity so I could show them what I've got," 'Unga told Buffalobills.com. "I feel like it's a challenge that I love taking on just so I can prove myself coming from a little small town school. I think it's good for me."
For Marrone 'Unga seems to be the odds on favorite to challenge for a prominent role on Buffalo's offensive line next season at guard. It's mainly because his game resembles those of previous offensive linemen that Marrone has tutored.
"'Unga reminds me a lot at least from a body standpoint of (New Orleans guard) Jahri Evans and (former NY Jets guard) Brandon Moore," said Marrone. "So I think that's a key."
Buffalo showed last offseason that they did not deem it fiscally responsible in this salary cap era to break the bank in order to re-sign Andy Levitre, who subsequently signed for more than $8 million per season elsewhere. Instead Marrone is hoping to groom these three young prospects to prepare them for potentially larger roles down the road.
"We're in a league that's based on a salary cap and there are certain positions you need to develop and spend your money in other areas," he said. "My background as an offensive line coach I realize that you're not going to be able to spend top dollar for five offensive linemen across the board."