BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
One of the most important battles brewing during organized team activities (OTA’s) for the Buffalo Bills is at left guard.
Andy Levitre started right away at left guard in his rookie season in 2009, and played every game over the past four seasons. He became not only a fixture, but an asset, next to Eric Wood (or whomever was playing center during Wood’s injuries). Now that Levitre has taken his talents to Nashville by signing with the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent, the Bills are searching for his replacement at left guard Doug Marrone’s new, up-tempo offensive scheme.
Despite most of the the football world assuming the Bills would find help in free agency or the draft, the Bills seem content with the options they have on the roster.
With a rookie quarterback potentially taking snaps under center, the protection from the offensive line will be of the utmost importance. Let’s take a look at the options the Bills have on their roster to start at left guard.
Right now, it seems to be a three-man race for the left guard job. During the Bills’ three-day OTA earlier this week, the Bills sent out a different guard with the first-team offensive line each day. Sam Young started Monday, Chris Scott was on the first team Tuesday and Colin Brown got first-team work Wednesday, according to BuffaloBills.com.
For my money, Brown is probably the favorite at this moment. A right tackle at Missouri, Brown was moved inside after being drafted by the Chiefs in 2009. He was signed by the Bills to be a backup center, but saw action at right guard as well in 2011 when Kraig Urbik was moved to center following an Eric Wood injury.
A former basketball player, Brown is rather athletic for his 6’7”, 326-pound frame. He sometimes plays too high, but that tends to be less apparent when he plays “in the phone booth” and not out of the edge by himself. He offers some versatility for the Bills to keep in a reserve role since he’s played every position on the line other than left tackle, but his physicality and athleticism might make him the best fit in Marrone’s up-tempo offense.
He certainly is the best suited among the top contenders for a quick-paced offense, especially since Missouri ran one during his time there as well.
The other name in the presumed two-man race coming into OTA’s was Sam Young. Another former right tackle, Young was penciled to move inside to guard when he was drafted by the Cowboys in 2010. However, after being claimed by the Bills off waivers in 2011, Young has seen most of his time as a reserve right tackle.
At 6’8” and 316 pounds, Young lacks Brown’s natural athleticism. He’s not a bad athlete, but his feet are a bit slow and he was frequently beaten off the line as a tackle.
His handwork has gotten better since college, but one of the knocks on him entering the draft was that he allowed rushers get too close to his body. That is a major problem when dealing with the bigger, more physical rushers a guard faces on the interior line. If you let Vince Wilfork get in close to your body, you’ll be on the ground before you know it.
Young is a smart player and has a lot of experience, but I just don’t see him being able to move and protect in Marrone’s offense. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big Sam Young believer, but I simply see him as more of a reserve in the NFL.
When OTA’s started, a third name started popping up in the left guard conversation. Chris Scott is a versatile lineman out of Tennessee, but he has not played an NFL game since he was waived by the Steelers in 2011.
Primarily a left tackle in college, Scott was moved inside because he lacked foot speed and overall awareness. He has a tendency to lunge for oncoming rushers, which is less apparent when moved inside where defenders can’t get as wide and spread out their physical distance. His tenacity also becomes a greater asset at the guard position.
He plays with the type of physicality and ill intentions that have come to be associated with some of the NFL’s best interior offensive linemen. It makes him a solid run blocker but also can leave him reaching when a pass-rusher takes advantage of his aggressive nature.
Overall, I’ve always been a fan of Scott’s versatility and physicality, but he’s another guy I don’t see being a great fit in a fast-paced offense. Since he offers enough value at all positions, I could see the Bills preferring to keep him around as a swing reserve.
The Darkhorse: Zebrie Sanders
A name that isn’t being talked about much since he missed most of last season with injury, Zebrie Sanders is an intriguing piece in the left guard competition. At 6’6” and 320 pounds, Sanders was highly regarded following his final year at Florida State, but missed all of last season due to hip surgeries.
Sanders has more than enough athleticism to be an asset in Marrone’s system. Sanders showed good kick and solid feet while manning the edge at Florida State, and served as EJ Manuel’s primary pass protector when he moved to left tackle as a senior. He lacked enough awareness to consistently position himself properly against the best pass-rushers, but the athleticism was never a question.
His biggest weakness in college was being alone in space against an edge rusher. He wouldn’t have to do that at guard. Playing inside would enable him to use the physical aspects of his run blocking that were such an asset in college. He has “heavy hands” and likes to engage rushers, which tends to be a positive trait at the interior positions.
Continuing to rehabilitate from injury, he did not participate in the OTA earlier this week. Once he gets back on the field, his name should start to come up a lot more.
In the Mix: Zack Chibane
A final name that has been in the mix is undrafted rookie Zack Chibane. Having played for Marrone at Syracuse for the past four years, he offers a fair bit of experience in the system, which could serve him well. He also has a grit and resiliency that allowed him to start 38 consecutive games and will endear him to Bills fans.
Chibane received work with the second-team offensive line at left guard during this week’s OTA. He played left guard at Syracuse, so he has the most experience at the position of anyone in the competition. He is a powerful blocker and willing to get dirty, but as an undrafted free agent, it is going to be an uphill battle for him to make the squad, let alone win a starting spot.
After one week of OTA’s, my rankings to start at left guard are as follows (expect movement from Sanders):
1) Colin Brown
2) Chris Scott
3) Zebrie Sanders
4) Sam Young
5) Zack Chibane