OPINION: 2021 State of the Bills: Offensive line

The unit may look a lot different in 2021

My "2021 State of the Bills" series continues with a look at the offensive line as the team heads into the offseason:

Under contract:
• Mitch Morse
• Dion Dawkins
• Cody Ford
• Ryan Bates
• Jordan Devey
• Trey Adams

Pending Free Agents:
• Daryl Williams
• Jon Feliciano
• Brian Winters
• Ty Nsekhe
• Ike Boettger (RFA)

State of the position:

I’m going to start this off with a statement that probably seems like it can’t be true, but is, and is a bit scary to think about for Buffalo Bills fans. Here goes:

"Heading into the 2021 offseason, there is only one actual offensive line starting spot secured and known - Dion Dawkins at left tackle."

That’s it.

Sure, there could very well be multiple returners along the line, but as of right now, the only thing that’s certain is Dawkins is the starting left tackle in 2021.

Center Mitch Morse still has two years remaining on a $44.5 million contract he signed prior to the 2019 season, but the team can save over $4.8 million by releasing him prior to June 1 and close to $8 million by doing it after June 1.

There would be financial ramifications, however. If they were to do it before June 1, they would still take on a $5.5 million dead cap hit. After June 1, it would be $2.75 million in each of the next two seasons.

Not ideal, so why even discuss it?

First, because the team has some salary cap constraints they must work through heading into 2021. Even though the cap is most likely going to be higher than originally thought, the Bills don’t have a lot of space to work with, have a few free agents they probably want to re-sign (more on that later), and patch some other holes around the roster. So that kind of savings could really come in handy.

Second, there were clear indications last year that the team may not view Morse in their long-term plans when they made him a healthy scratch in their game against the Arizona Cardinals and started Jon Feliciano in his spot. Morse had just come off a concussion, so many figured that might have been the reason. However, head coach Sean McDermott made it clear it was not. He was healthy enough to play, but they chose not to. He said it was a “football decision.”

Morse has had multiple concussions in his career, including two already with the Bills. That may be another reason they explore the option of moving on from him early.

Dawkins is entrenched at the left tackle position. He signed a four-year, $58.3 million contract extension, which kicks in next season.

A really big piece of the offensive line puzzle going forward is Cody Ford.

They have to determine two things with Ford going forward.

First, is he truly one of the best five lineman they have? It hasn’t been clear that that’s the case so far through his two-year NFL career.

Second, where is his best fit? He played mostly right tackle his entire rookie season, then was moved inside to guard this past year, playing both right, then left. It seemed like left guard was his best spot overall, but a knee injury in late November forced him to miss the remainder of the season.

What they feel about Ford will have a pretty big domino effect on how they treat the rest of the offensive line this offseason and heading into next season. Their analysis of him has to be correct, as well. There has to be an honest conversation about him and his future either way.

The team really, really likes Ryan Bates. He’s very versatile, basically able to play all five positions up front, although he’s mainly considered a tackle and center. He played in every single game in 2020, sometimes filling in at tackle and sometimes for just a single snap as an extra lineman, mainly near the goal line. He was also on the field goal and extra point teams.

He is still under contract and for only $850,000 next season.

Devey spent almost the entire season on the Bills' practice squad, but the team signed him to the active 53-man roster during the playoffs after placing running back Zack Moss on Injured Reserve.

The Bills are his sixth team over his eight-year career. Immediately following the season, the team re-signed him to a one-year contract, which means they liked him enough to make sure they kept him before he went to free agency. It also could be another indication of their feelings on Morse, since Devey is a very versatile player, spending most of his time in his career at guard or center.

Adams came to the Bills as an undrafted free agent, but highly touted out of the University of Washington, where he had been thought of as an early round draft pick before injuries hurt his college career. He spent the season on the practice squad and will have a chance to compete for a spot next summer after the Bills signed him to a reserve/future deal.

Now let’s get to the pending free agents.

There are five of them, four who will be unrestricted, meaning they can sign with any team beginning March 17 at 4 p.m. ET.

Daryl Williams and Feliciano are considered two of the Bills' top-three pending free agents on their overall roster, along with linebacker Matt Milano.

Williams had a very good season at right tackle after signing a one-year contract with the Bills, coming over from the Carolina Panthers, where he earned All-Pro honors in 2017 before injuries set him back. His familiarity with Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott helped land him in Buffalo on a one-year deal, counting $2.5 million against the salary cap.

It’s hard to see any way they can keep him for that type of price this offseason. He’s earned himself a much nicer payday. The question will be how much and if it ultimately falls out of the range the Bills are willing to go.

There is no doubt the offensive line got better once Feliciano came back into the lineup. He missed the first seven games of the season after tearing a pectoral muscle during an offseason workout, right before training camp.

Immediately upon his return, there was a different attitude amongst the unit. In his first game back, he had to slide over to center because Morse got hurt on the very first series. But in that game, the Bills rushed for 190 yards and beat the New England Patriots, 24-21. He was also the player they used in place of Morse when he didn’t dress against the Cardinals, which leads to wondering if the team feels Feliciano is the better option at center going forward.

Whether they do or not, Feliciano is a valuable player, excellent teammate, and someone I’m confident they want to have back. He also really likes it in Buffalo and has a great relationship with Josh Allen.

The business side of this one may not have to get too complicated, and it’s possible the team and Feliciano can work something out to bring him back. But, there’s no faulting him at all for checking out his value on the open market, if that’s what happens. From there, you never know what another team may be willing to offer.

Boettger is scheduled to become a restricted free agent, which means the Bills will have a chance to offer him a minimum qualifying offer to retain his rights. Even though we won’t know what that number is for a few more weeks, it’s most likely going to come in at over $2 million.

I can’t see the team paying him that much.

The thought here is they will let Boettger become an unrestricted free agent, then try to re-sign him at a lower rate.

Boettger deserves a ton of praise for grinding his way to becoming a starter, after coming into the league as an undrafted free agent by the Bills in 2018 and spending most of his career on the practice squad or a reserve, at best. In fact, Boettger seemed to really solidify the Bills offensive line once Ford went down, and he replaced him at left guard.

He’d be a very nice player to have back, but he’s also not irreplaceable.

Right now, I can’t see the team going out of their way to try and retain Winters or Nsekhe.

Winters was a nice veteran to have on the roster, but when he got his shot to play, he was inconsistent. Plus with the re-signing of Devey, along with other players who have position flexibility, that could be an indication they are going to let him move on. However, he should be cheap to bring back if they choose to for depth and competition purposes.

The exact same can basically be said for Nsekhe, except he is mainly an outside player, not interior. He was strictly used as a backup player in case of injury all season, dressing but not even getting a snap in nine contests, and playing only eight snaps only one time all year. Again, depth and competition are always needed and guys like him are going to be on the roster come training camp, but at this point they may want to look at younger options for both players.


2021 State of the Bills:
Running back
Tight end
Wide receiver

Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports

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