Bills' Offensive Line Coming Around Full Circle

Upon his hire, GM Tom Donahoe, or Commander Tom as he is affectionately known to readers, inherited a team with an offensive line that was extremely problematic. It was a line consisting of aging vets no longer capable of performing up to standard, a line whose best players were oft-injured either missing games or playing at less than 100%, and a line with few if any up-and-coming prospects on it.

The offensive line is also arguably the single unit on any football team where chemistry plays the greatest role in its performance. This is why even though superior linemen being brought into teams via free agency, it often takes something in the time frame of a half a season for them to "gel."

Nevertheless, upon his hire, the 2001 season starting offensive line consisted of:

*Ruben Brown: Age 29, originally drafted in the 1st round in 1995.

Jon Carman: Age 25, originally an undrafted free agent (UFA) in 2000.

*Bill Conaty: Age 28, originally an UFA in 1997.

Kris Farris: Age 24, originally drafted in the 3rd round in 1999.

*John Fina: Age 32, originally drafted in the 1st round in 1992.

Chris Heimburger: Age 24, originally drafted in the 5th round in 1999.

*Corey Hulsey: Age 24, originally an UFA in 1999.

Jonas Jennings: Age 23, originally drafted in the 3rd round in 2001. (rookie)

*Jerry Ostroski: Age 31, originally drafted in the 10th round in 1992. (Would have been an UFA in today's drafts)

Marques Sullivan: Age 23, originally drafted in the 5th round in 2001. (rookie)

(*) Original starting line

The game that Rob Johnson was terminally injured in never to start for the Bills again, featured rookie Jonas Jennings at LT, Ruben Brown at LG, Bill Conaty at C, Corey Hulsey at RG, and Jerry Ostroski at RT.

The Bills OL in 2001 was recognized as one of the worst lines in the modern Bills era to be sure.

While many would insist that Commander Tom has rebuilt the lines since then, an argument can quickly be made to the contrary. On a line which essentially required a complete upgrade, little has been done from a "real" or effective standpoint. Oh sure, the Bills drafted Jonas Jennings as the second of two 3rd-round picks late in the round in the 2001 draft and then Mike Williams super-prospect now turned super-project in the 1st round with the fourth overall selection in the 2002 draft. This is the extent of the attention paid to the Bills' offensive line in rounds one through four in terms of up-and-coming linemen acquired throughout the Commander Tom era.

As every Bills fan knows, Jonas Jennings is now a free agent and looking less and less likely to return and Mike Williams has worked out such lack of establishing himself as the dominant RT that he was supposed to have been that rumors now abound as to his sliding over to the easier played guard spot next season.

Nevertheless, the line today heading into the 2005 season minus Jennings, consists of:

*Jonas Jennings: Age 27, originally drafted in the 3rd round in 2001.

*Trey Teague: Age 30/31, originally drafted in the 7th round in 1998.

*Chris Villarrial: Age 32, originally drafted in the 5th round in 1996.

*Mike Williams: Age 25, drafted in the 1st round in 2002.

*Ross Tucker: Age 26, originally an UFA in 2001.

Lawrence Smith: Age 26, originally an UFA in 2002.

Dylan McFarland: Age 25, drafted in the 7th round in 2004.

Mike Pucillo: Age 26, drafted in the 7th round in 2002.

Marcus Price: Age 33, originally drafted in the 6th round in 1995.

(*) Original starting line

This line situation is one of the several areas where the strategic management has taken a super-siesta throughout the Commander Tom era. As can be easily seen, enormous resources were not exactly expended on building what is one of the primary strengths of every Super Bowl winner as well as all serious playoff teams to understate matters. It also has much to do with the Commander Tom philosophy emphasizing skill position players over "trench" players, a philosophy which was put to shame and should have been permanently put to rest following the now notorious Steelers game this past season.

Heading into the 2001 season, the Bills had a very similar line to what they have now. The only players worth mentioning were Ruben Brown a very good but not dominant G, young up-and-comer Jonas Jennings who played well as a rookie, and solid but injury plagued veteran Jerry Ostroski. Today, minus Jennings, the Bills have no better a line with again, only three players worthy of mention. Mike Williams, overpaid project and former 4th overall draft selection, Trey Teague, an average center with limited utility otherwise and aging to the extent that his utility will degrade to backup status any season now, and seasoned veteran Chris Villarrial whose performances can also be expected to begin tapering off and he is only average or perhaps slightly above regardless.

Villarrial is Ostroski's equal of 2001. Williams is close to Brown's equal of 2001 level wise. Jennings was a much better prospect as a rookie moving up than Teague is moving down.

The Bills today have no up-and-comers at all due to the team having ignored the line in recent offseasons. They have two of their only three viable players now in "year-to-year" status with one in a contract season and both not much better than average if at all and both on the wrong side of 30. There is not one other lineman on the Bills' roster worthy of mention which was fully evident by the inability of the team to find a regular starter at left guard, a spot not exactly the toughest to fill on the line.

Yet, Commander Tom seems to have his own agenda and his own ways of doing business in the NFL however, often shunning conventional wisdom and traditional NFL reason and sense in exchange for his own way of doing business which seems to be rooted in preying upon "new school" fans desire for "star players" and individual statistical accolades over total team performance and overall outcome. Sadly, pending Jennings' status, this has left the Bills with only one up-and-coming lineman, and that lineman is the issue-laden Mike Williams who has done anything but live up to 1st round 4th overall selection status and having been outplayed by all of his peers in that draft. Indeed the line situation looks bleak heading not only into this upcoming season, but also peeking into the future.

There is basis for tremendous concern for Bills fans even if Jonas Jennings returns to the Bills. Trey Teague is in a contract year and at 31/32 in 2006 should not be resigned and his original signing was dubious anyway. The Bills will be fortunate, based on recent history, if Chris Villarrial plays all 16 games next season and represents an average lineman that will begin to experience a degradation in his skills due to age at any time. He will be 32 this season. His status for 2006 is also dicey. Marcus Price was much less effective than he was last season and no longer a viable starter although the Bills marketing machine may make his starting a piece of the "media master plan" heading into 2005. If Price is resigned, veteran minimum should be the offer.

Mike Pucillo likely will not be resigned. Lawrence Smith showed nothing to indicate that he even deserves a job in the NFL. Dylan McFarland's ever turning into anything but a viable backup would be a minor miracle. Ross Tucker plays to the level of a journeyman backup, but started in the Bills system at times in their "revolving door" LG policy due to their lack of a bonafide LG. Even DT Justin Bannan was called upon to play LG on certain pulling plays.

The bottom line is that if Jonas Jennings leaves the team, and pending any moves during the offseason, the Bills at present have an offensive line which will be among the bottom few worst in the league next season and no better than what it was in 2001. The prospects of the Bills line for 2006 currently are frightening and alarming. Even if Jennings signs, this still leaves the Bills with a below average line and one not capable of competing with playoff caliber lines next season without additional help.

Why? Simply due to neglect and a lack of vision in considering the line since the end of the 2002 season. Then again, regular readers here do not have to be enlightened to that fact.

There is one solution however, but it will take a good chunk of the team's resources to correct not to mention a diametrical departure from the "ways of the past" regarding offseason approach. If the Bills sign two above average veteran linemen to start immediately, and preferably not two linemen approaching or already in their 30s, but linemen coming off of their first contract, then the line for this season may be adequate to compete well. Then the Bills need to expend their current 2nd round draft selection along with their 3rd to get two linemen with hopes of starting next season. Make no mistake however, if the Bills are to be competitive, due to seasons of neglect for the offensive line, the piper is standing at the door with the bill.





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