Throughout former General Manager Tom Donahoe's tenure with the Buffalo Bills, the offensive line was a constant concern. As personnel rotated in and out, opposing defenders continued to flow through the Bills' turnstile of a front five.
Those concerns are long gone with the 2008 season in the books. As a matter of fact, the fairly consistent offensive line should be one of the least of the front office's concerns this offseason.
Two full seasons after signing big-money contracts with the Bills, LG Derrick Dockery and RT Langston Walker have earned their pay, each starting all 16 games this season and respectively holding his own. RG Brad Butler stepped up as a consistent starter, and proved his usefulness beyond competing with DT Kyle Williams in Santa Claus lookalike competitions. Butler was a jolly blocker in both the pass and run games this year, and will almost certainly hold down his position in 2009.
The big stories heading into the offseason on this line are at center and left tackle. Melvin Fowler began the season as the starting C in his contract season, but inconsistency (especially in the run game) and injuries in the first half of the season led to his giving way to Duke Preston. Preston proved to be a much better blocker, but had obvious trouble snapping the ball on several occasions. In the most likely scenario, Fowler will walk and Preston (also a free agent) will be re-signed in order to serve in at least a sixth-man capacity, while the Bills pursue an upgrade in the draft or free agency.
Left tackle Jason Peters is a whole different animal (figuratively, although he does physically look rather animal-like). Although there are [varying opinions] on what the Bills should do with Peters this offseason, there is little doubt that he is the Bills' most talented lineman. Unfortunately, Peters is aware of this, and will certainly hold out of training camp if he doesn't get a richer deal, considering he's returning to the Pro Bowl after taking last summer off. A dominant left tackle like Peters is the cornerstone to an offense, but Peters' clashes with the front office for more money could be poisonous to a locker room that is already on edge.
As a unit, the O-line showed marked development. For the season, the line allowed 38 sacks, an inflated number considering 15 of them came with oft-confused JP Losman under center in just three and a half games. Meanwhile, the tailback tandem of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson combined for a generally unimpressive 4.2 yards per carry, but that number would probably have been decisively higher with more competent offensive play-calling.
Kirk Chambers was roused from his slumber on the bench when needed for spot duty at either tackle position and served admirably. He appeared in all 16 games and started four, including a week one rout of Seattle in which Peters was unprepared to play after ending his holdout that week. The Bills' other primary reserve, Jason Whittle, saw the field in nine games and started two, playing guard, but also appearing at fullback and on special teams on occasion. Both may factor into the Bills' plans for the line as reserves.
Priority number one for the offensive line this offseason will be inking Jason Peters to the deal he wants, or getting something valuable in exchange for him, if need be. The team cannot afford to wait for him to get in shape like they had to in 2008. The next order of business will be to add a big, talented center to hold down the middle of an already beefy-yet-shifty line. If and when these moves are made, the line will be poised to continue their development and to hopefully spearhead the growth of the Bills' offense.
Adam Beilman is a regular analyst for the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at email@example.com
Bang it here to see BFR's Adam Beilman and Tyler Dunne's different takes on the Jason Peters situation.