OPINION: 2022 State of the Bills: Offensive line

Decisions have to be made on several players up front in Buffalo

As the Buffalo Bills and NFL move towards free agency and the draft, my position-by-position "State of the Bills" offseason series continues with a look at the offensive line:

Under contract:

- Dion Dawkins
- Mitch Morse
- Daryl Williams
- Spencer Brown
- Jon Feliciano
- Cody Ford
- Tommy Doyle
- Jacob Capra

Pending Free Agents:

- Ryan Bates (RFA)
- Ike Boettger (UFA)
- Bobby Hart (UFA)

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State of the position:

Dawkins still has three years remaining on a four-year, $58.3 million contract he signed prior to the 2020 season. The Bills made a hefty investment in the soon-to-be 28-year-old to be their franchise left tackle.

Then Dawkins had an awful bout with COVID-19 during training camp and preseason that landed him in the hospital, and forced him to miss several weeks of action. He made it back by the opening week of the regular season, but clearly struggled to regain his usual form and play. The good news was Dawkins continued to get better and better as the season went on.

He missed another game late in the season after going on the Reserve/COVID-19 list again, but when he came back just after Christmas, Dawkins had some of the most dominating play of his career for the rest of the season.

Hopefully his health issues are behind him and he can pick up where he left off in 2022.

Brown filled in at left tackle, at times, during the preseason while Dawkins was out. He began the regular season as a backup, then four games in, he started at right tackle and never relinquished the job. He was up-and-down throughout parts of the season, with good games and bad games, which is to be expected from a rookie offensive lineman. However, it appears the Bills are very happy and content with him anchoring the right side of the line for the next several years, or at least heading into 2022.

Just a year ago, center Mitch Morse took a $2 million pay cut from his 2021 salary, but was awarded more guarantees in order to secure his roster spot and free up some salary cap space for the team. That was an indication to many that he could be a cap casualty after the season.

But here we are now, and Morse might even be a contract extension candidate after putting together a solid campaign. He was reliable, available, and steady throughout a season in which most of the other spots on the line were anything but all of that, especially the guard spots to his left and right.

Morse is scheduled to make $6.9 million in base salary next season and has an $11.25 million salary cap number. The Bills could actually save $8.5 million by releasing him, and that’s certainly not out of the question knowing they will be looking to free up some space. However, that would mean losing the pivot man in the middle of their line, who will only be 30-years-old next season, and as mentioned above, coming off a really good season.

What would make more sense for me is for the team to extend Morse now for a couple more years, giving him upfront money in a signing bonus while doing it, reducing his cap number for next year.

Last offseason, Williams and Feliciano were both priority free agents to retain. Now both players are cut candidates just one year later.

Williams signed a three-year, $24 million extension last March with the expectation he would play right tackle. After drafting Brown and seeing how well he developed, then starting him there, Williams moved inside to guard where he played OK, but was inconsistent.

The 29-year-old is scheduled to count just under $10 million on the salary cap next season, which is a lot to swallow for a non-top-level guard. The Bills would save $6.3 million by releasing him. However, that would still come with a $3.6 million dead cap hit, which isn’t something general manager Brandon Beane usually wants to take on.

They could also release Williams with a post-June 1 designation, saving $8.125 million on the cap, while taking on a dead money hit of $1.8 million in each of the next two seasons.

As far as Feliciano, his number isn’t nearly as high, counting only $4.87 million on the salary cap next season, but the team could save more than half of that, $4.1 million, with a post-June 1 release and absorb only $750,000 in dead cap space over the next two seasons.

If the Bills don’t release Feliciano, they’re basically paying close to $5 million on their cap for, what became, a backup guard.

After signing his three-year, $14.4 million extension last March, Feliciano started five of the first six games of the season, missing one due to a concussion. Then he went on Injured Reserve with a calf injury and missed five games. He never regained his starting spot when he came back, but that also included missing two games while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Feliciano can play both left and right guard and is also the team’s primary back up center. He certainly has value to the Bills. If they feel he can re-gain his starting form and be one of their top-five linemen next season, his contract shouldn’t be an issue. They can live with his salary cap number, although they still may want to try and reduce it somehow.

If Feliciano is not going to be in their plans as one of the starting-five, they’ll most likely look to move on because that number wouldn’t be feasible for a backup role.

So far throughout his three-year NFL career, Cody Ford has been a second round swing and a miss by the Bills. Ford has had his position switched, started, lost his starting job, and has been inactive. They’ve certainly given him multiple opportunities to earn a starting spot, but he hasn’t been able to take firm hold of one and has been inconsistent, at best, throughout the majority of his first three seasons.

Now Ford is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and there’s no indication he’s going to suddenly become the starter they envisioned. He’s only on the books for $2.38 million on next year‘s salary cap. They could save $1.5 million by releasing or trading him, but that doesn’t seem like it would be enough to justify, at least, seeing if he may be able to elevate his game under new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.

Unless Beane feels he can get a worthy enough asset for him, Ford will most likely come to camp with one final chance to prove himself, then see what happens when final cuts roll around in September.

Fifth round pick Tommy Doyle saw action in six games, including 37 total snaps in the final two regular season games. The Bills like his size and athleticism. He’ll compete for a backup role at camp next season.

Jacob Capra was signed to the practice squad midway through the season. He was elevated for one contest, but did not play. He signed a Reserve/Future deal at the end of the season, keeping him under contract, as of now, and headed into 2022 training camp.

Bates proved to be extremely valuable for the team down the stretch in 2021, starting the final three regular season contests and both playoff games at guard, and playing really well overall.

The 25-year-old has been with the Bills for three years, acquired via trade from the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 2019 season. His biggest asset has been his versatility. Bates can actually play all five offensive line spots. But after settling in at guard and playing as well as he did, that may be the spot for him going forward.

With that said, Bates is now a restricted free agent, which means the Bills will have the right to give him an offer (known as a tender) to retain his rights. However, that can be expensive.

The website OverTheCap.com projects the 2022 RFA tender numbers to be: $2.43 million simply for the Bills to match any offer given to him by another team, to just shy of $4 million for them to be able to match an offer but receive a second round pick in return if they don’t, to $5.56 million, which would give them a first round pick in return for losing Bates.

It’s hard to see any team giving up a first or second round pick for Bates, so it’s doubtful the Bills will offer him that high of a tender. However, $2.4 million for a player who can backup every position, and possibly be a starter once again, does not sound too out-of-line.

The Bills could also negotiate a brand new contract for Bates, keeping him in the fold for more than one year at a price both sides are comfortable with.

When the offensive guard musical chairs finally settled last year, Ike Boettger was one of the players who still had a seat. Aside from starting one game while Feliciano was out, he was a backup for the first six contests, then inserted into the starting lineup in Week 8 and never lost his spot. Unfortunately, Boettger suffered a torn Achilles the day after Christmas in New England and finished the season on Injured Reserve.

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The organization showed how much they valued him last year by giving him a right of first refusal tender as a restricted free agent. But now Boettger, is an unrestricted free agent and will be able to sign with any team, unless the Bills work something out with him before the new league year begins on March 16.

The Achilles injury will be an issue here. If the Bills feel Boettger can get back, at least, close to 100% health, I could see them re-signing him in some fashion, knowing he’s given them needed depth along the offensive line the last couple of years. He is also the kind of player they love having in the locker room. If not, his time in Buffalo may very well be over.

From the moment he played in preseason games, Hart was definitely in the crosshairs of Bills fans. He was waived at the end of the regular season, then re-signed to the practice squad, waived again, then re-signed again. He only actually played in one regular season game, and that was only one snap.

Now Hart will be an unrestricted free agent. It actually wouldn't be surprising if the Bills brought him back to training camp for a veteran minimum salary, even if plenty of fans don't care to see that.

Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports

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