Offensive Line Must Become Top Priority

You've go to hand it to Marv Levy. When the 80-year old embarked on his homecoming to the Buffalo Bills as general manager in early January, he promised the team would be built of "high ability and high character." He also insinuated the team would get much younger. A few weeks back I carved out a column contrary to public opinion around the league that Levy Shows He's No Gimmick. GM.

Early on indications show that's unerringly been the case. Levy is indeed no gimmick general manager. Before free agency began he cut ties with Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy and Mark Campbell; three players creeping up in age and down in ability. Eric Moulds is gravely close to joining that list; chiefly after rebuffing a pay cut.

On day one of free agency Levy stomped out of the gates by signing Indianapolis defensive tackle Larry Tripplett. He's just coming into his own and has been in the league eight years fewer than Adams. His second move came by signing Robert Royal; less of a receiving threat than Campbell but a superior blocker. Royal's also has three-years less wear and tear on his body than Campbell.

Early Sunday a third acquisition was revealed in speedy wide receiver Andre Davis. Though his numbers after four years are anything but extravagant (102 catches for 1,602 yards and 14 scores) he brings blazing speed and big play capability to the offense. It appears with Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish that Levy wants guys who can get down the field; a trend promising for quarterback aspirant J.P. Losman.

While the early returns show potential the real impact that'll decide football games hasn't yet been addressed. If the Bills are to have any reasonable chance of turning a 5-11 season around it's going to come way of revamping and improving a ghastly offensive line.

The Bills have been home for January six years running for one very big reason; the offensive line wasn't talented enough.

During Tom Donahoe's five-year run as general manager he completed acquisitions that appealed to Bills fans; getting his hands on big names like Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher, Adams, Milloy and Troy Vincent through free agency. He also nabbed Willis McGahee, Lee Evans, Nate Clements and Terrence McGee all through the draft.

But the Bills never made the playoffs during his time in power and benefited from only one winning season (9-7 in 2004.) Though there are a number of reasons for this mediocrity none takes precedent over an offensive line that was brutally neglected. Only one free agent (Trey Teague) was signed during the Donahoe era who had any positive impact on the unit. His only high draft choice came way of Mike Williams (4th in 2002) and he was cut about a month after Levy took over.

Of the five incumbent linemen, only Jason Peters should be a lock to return as a starter this season. Chris Villarrial has broken down too many times in his two seasons with Buffalo though he's still he's expected to be back at right guard. Duke Preston may still be a year away from center while Bennie Anderson was simply a massive mistake at guard. Mike Gandy is more apt to provide valued depth than at starting left tackle.

That leaves three new starters desired, two of which are likely to come via free agency.

At tackle, Jon Runyan would instantly step in and bolster the right side of the line. He's 32-years old but still plays on a Pro Bowl level and would afford the Bills to move Peters to the left side. Jason Fabini is an eight-year veteran who's been banged with injuries but could still play the left tackle spot well. Brad Hopkins is 13-year guy nearing the end of the line but could be a great short-term fix. With Hopkins, Buffalo could draft and develop a tackle in the second or third round of the draft. LJ Shelton, Tom Ashworth and Kenyetta Walker are also possibilities.

Stephen Neal heads up the guard class. Tom Brady loves this guy and is trying to keep him in New England. He's a self-made football player and a former wrestler in college and has Super Bowl experience with the Patriots. He's only a four-year vet and would fit nicely into Levy's "character first" concept. Vince Manuwai still has a lot of upside with only three years experience. Toniu Fonoti is a big, Bennie Anderson type at 350 pounds but better. Carolina would love to keep Tutan Reyes but just spent big money on Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Justin Hartwig. Derrick Dockery from Washington could also draw interest.

With centers, Kevin Mawae's best days are clearly behind him at 35 but could bring an outstanding short-term upgrade to the interior line. He could also teach Preston a thing or two as he continues to improve and eventually take over.

< Jeff Faine isn't a free agent but with Cleveland signing LeCharles Bentley, the Browns are looking to trade. He's a three-year starter and only 24. Perhaps a deal with Cleveland could see Buffalo take Faine. Trading for Faine would make Preston a key backup at both the center and guard position, giving the Bills much wanted quality depth. The rest of the centers on the market are either too old or have largely underachieved, the last thing the Bills need lining up on Sundays.

Exactly which direction Buffalo goes in with regards to the line is a mystery. Only Mawae has been mentioned as coming to Buffalo for an interview. It's not exactly like Levy's eager to disclose any more information to the media than he considers necessary.

But still, you have the mood he knows how weak the offensive line is and it's only a matter of time before it grows to be what it should've been the past several years.

Priority number one.

(Pat Moran covers the Bills for Scout.com and Billszone.com. You can email him at patmoran2006@yahoo.com)

(Billszone.com )


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