BY DAN BEGNOCHE
The Bills' offensive line started last season under the microscope. This year, it will start in the same spot, but for a much different reason.
As the 2011 season was set to get under way, the situation on the Bills' line was not what fans were hoping for: inexperience, perceived lack of leadership and zero depth.
What they got, however, was a group that worked extremely hard, bought into the system and produced, snap after snap, despite a constant shifting of players due to injury. Now, as the squad says goodbye to one face and hello to three more via the draft, the pressure is on to not only perform well, but progress.
The group going into last season — Demetress Bell, Andy Levitre, Eric Wood, Keith Urbik and Erik Pears — was touted as a ragtag bunch at best, with their backups a short list in Chris Hairston and Chad Rinehart. In sticking with a gameplan of quick reads and short, decisive passing plays, however, the squad allowed a league-best 23 sacks all season, the best full-season performance by a Buffalo line crew since sacks became an official statistic. They accomplished that feat despite Levitre, Pears and Rinehart being the only ones to appear in all 16 games and Levitre playing numerous positions throughout the season.
The Bills added some depth in April, drafting linemen Cordy Glenn, Zebrie Sanders and Mark Asper in rounds two, five and six, respectively. With all three showing great raw skills at their respective positions and making their marks during rookie minicamp (all three have been signed), the Bills' line will have a much-needed cushion going into next season.
“We look better in the huddle,” coach Chan Gailey said of his rookie linemen at minicamp. “They are big men. They can move.”
Bell shopped around during the offseason and departed for Philadelphia. Hairston is the likely heir apparent at left tackle after filling in for Bell last season due to injuries, though Glenn, who took all of his reps at left tackle during minicamp, will battle for a spot. General manager Buddy Nix isn't hell-bent on the idea of Hairston starting this season but complimented the second-year player's ability.
“We need tackles, but we think Chris Hairston can play left tackle for us and win," Nix said before the draft. "People say Fitz gets the ball out quick, but we run our offense with a lot of empty sets, with five blockers and if they bring six he better get it out. In this offense he has to get it out quick. Chris Hairston might not be the prettiest foot athlete that he can protect the back side.”
The squad will face its share of adversity this season, as it is set to take on four of the top-10 sack-leading teams of last season in the Texans, Cardinals, 49ers and Dolphins. On the flip side, nine of the Bills' 13 opponents finished last season with losing records, and Buffalo will face five first-year coaches.
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