It was an interesting season for the Bills offensive line. Overall, they were very good in one area, and not so much in another.
According to ESPN Analytics, using Next Gen Stats, the Bills offensive line ranked 4th in the NFL in pass block win rate at 64%. They say that's calculated when the group holds for 2.5 seconds or longer.
Backing that up is how Josh Allen was sacked 26 times, tied for 16th in the NFL. Conversely, run blocking was a struggle. They rated out at a 69% win rate, which ranked 29th in the league.
Who exactly was playing to produce those numbers was really a story in 2020. It took until the final quarter of the regular season to finally find continuity.
Overall, there were seven different starting combinations. The final one was together the last eight games of the season, including the playoffs.
Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams were the only constants, each starting every game at the tackle spots.
The interior had quite the shuffling of the deck, with five different combinations at the guard spots. Part of that was due to injuries. Another part was performance based.
Look no further than Quinton Spain. He signed a new three-year deal last offseason after starting every game at left guard in 2019. Spain continued to put in the work heading into the 2020 training camp, winning the Bills Iron Award from the team's strength and conditioning staff for his offseason efforts. But he lost his starting job after the first two games and was later released in late October.
Now that group could be mixed up again with four players who started seven games or more about to hit free agency.
Let's start at the top with Williams. He played 96% of the snaps this season, all at right tackle. That's a departure from where Brandon Beane expected, admitting that he envisioned Williams at guard when he signed him last offseason. The injury to Jon Feliciano kicked Cody Ford inside and opened things up for Williams to stick at RT, a position he was a 2nd team All-Pro in 2017.
Feliciano began the season on the shelf after suffering a torn pec right before training camp. After starting every game at right guard in 2019, Feliciano showed his versatility immediately upon his return. He ultimately tallied two starts at LG, two starts at C, and the final eight games back at RG.
They were two key stabilizing pieces to the puzzle up front this past season, but Beane knows it's going to be tough to retain them.
"If we can get them back, I don't know," Beane said last week during his end of season Zoom call. "We'll have to see where there markets are and things like that. If not, we'll have to find some similar replacements at a cost-effective number."
Spotrac projects Williams to fetch about $7.8 million a year, which would rank 10th among RTs in the NFL. They have Feliciano slightly higher, with his projected market value around $8.3 million, 17th at the G spot in the league.
I really only see a way for the Bills to bring back one of them. Tackle is often believed to be the more important position, but Feliciano's flexibility plus widely-praised tenacity may be viewed as more valuable.
Brian Winters started nine games, but lost his job late in the season. After rotating at RT in 2019, Ty Nsekhe only saw 54 snaps this season. I'd guess both will not be returning.
Ike Boettger was part of that group that started the final stretch of the season for the Bills. While he's able to play multiple spots, Boettger slotted in at left guard the majority of the time.
"This year we tried to say let's just focus in on guard more than anything," Beane said. "Obviously emergency center, but I thought once he got in a groove, played better and better. I thought he and Dion meshed well with the games that they could go on. I thought he provided comfort to Mitch [Morse] just because helping settle things down with the calls up front. So for a young player to get thrown in late in the year like that with limited experience, I was very pleased."
Boettger's a restricted free agent, so I'd be shocked if he isn't back. Depending on what else happens, he may be in the mix again to start.
There certainly are questions as well regarding some of those still under contract for next season.
Morse had an up and down season, one where he suffered another concussion and then didn't play in a game he did not have an injury designation for. Still, Beane shedding some light into why he believes Morse's performance in 2020 was solid.
"Mitch is more of an athletic center than a power center," Beane explained. "Last season we probably him on the pin-and-pull plays a little bit more than we did this year. Just every year is a new year and you kind of get in a groove of what's working and what's not. Mitch is never going to be a guy that's going to mow a nose tackle three yards down the field, but at the end of the day I thought he played well overall this season and especially the second half of the season."
That said, if the Bills aren't going to run a blocking scheme that fits Morse's skillset best, would they consider moving on and grabbing some more savings on the cap? If released before June 1, the team would save about $4.8 million while absorbing a $5.5 million dead cap hit this season. If they waited until after June 1, the cap savings go up to nearly $7.6 million with the dead cap hits spreading out to $2.75 each of the next two years. I'll be honest, I think this is a long-shot, but could potentially be a way for the Bills to bring back both Williams and Feliciano, maybe sliding Feliciano to center if a replacement can't be found in free agency or the draft.
The other big question from those on the roster involves Cody Ford.
"He's played as many games hurt as he has healthy," Beane said.
The Bills GM explained that Ford fought through a shoulder injury most of his rookie season that could have shut him down, but the young lineman refused, even with surgery and a six month rehab period looming. Then Ford's second season was cut short with a serious knee injury that's already had two surgeries according to Beane.
Now Beane and the Bills must decide what to do with Ford moving forward. Getting healthy and staying that way is obviously the first step. Then it's a matter of where does Ford play? He spent his entire rookie year at RT, rotating with Nsekhe. This season he began at RG then flipped over to LG before suffering the season-ending knee injury. How things play out with Williams and Feliciano may determine where Ford slots in in 2021, potentially viewed as the replacement for either on the right side.
"We like his versatility," Beane said. "We like that he can play guard or tackle, so I'm not going to slot him in as a guard only or a tackle only. But I would be surprised if he's not a starter of our front five next year. I'm not saying he is. He's got to come back and show he's healthy and earn it, but talent wise, yeah, he's probably one of our best five."
As you can see, the offensive line easily brings the most questions on the offensive side of things this offseason.
It may be another shuffle of the deck in 2021.