There’s little question offensive line continuity is an important facet of any winning NFL team’s success. As Thomas Emerick of the Sporting News and Rotoviz recently examined, many of the league’s best front fives – including the Eagles, Steelers, Colts, Ravens, and Bears — are set to return all five starters in 2019. Given that the offensive line is an extremely cerebral position group where all five members are consistently working as one, it makes sense that the most productive lines are those were familiarity is a constant.
But what about when things go wrong? The 2018 Bills ranked 30th in adjusted line yards, Football Outsiders’ attempt to filter out what part of a team’s rushing performance can be attributed specifically to its linemen. While Buffalo finished in the middle of the pack with 41 sacks allowed, they ranked just 23rd in adjusted sack rate, which accounts for down, distance, and opponent. The Bills ended the season as a bottom-five club in pressure rate allowed, and Pro Football Focus listed Buffalo as a bottom-seven offensive line in overall grading.
The Bills’ struggles can’t be blamed on offensive line changes. As Vincent Verhei of FO wrote in April, Buffalo actually ranked 10th in offensive line continuity score, which factors in the number of starters a team used, the number of weekly changes to its front five, and the longest starting streak of any single five-man unit. The Bills can’t point to injuries, either, as they finished with only 5.5 adjusted games lost along their offensive line, sixth-best in the NFL.
So what exactly was the problem for the Bills’ line last season? Frankly, it was a question of talent. Buffalo didn’t have a single offensive lineman grade among PFF’s top-60 OLs, while only one — left tackle Dion Dawkins — ranked top-90 positionally. Non-starting-caliber players such as Russell Bodine, Jordan Mills, Vlad Ducasse, and Ryan Groy each played more than 500 snaps a season ago.
In order to rectify their offensive line issues, the Bills deployed an interesting offseason plan: throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. Buffalo struck quickly in February, signing interior veteran Spencer Long just a week after he’d been released by the division-rival Jets. Long is no world-beater, but he’s got 44 games worth of starting experience under his belt, can play center and both guard positions, and will cost less than $4MM against the Bills’ 2019 salary cap before a series of options kick in 2020-21.