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BILLS TACKLING LINE VACANCY

It's been said many times in football, but it's worth repeating: It all starts with the offensive line.

No position up front is more important than left tackle, the protector of the quarterback's blind side.

With the free agent departure of Jonas Jennings, the Buffalo Bills may have the most uncertain left tackle situation in the NFL. The Bills' replacement for Jennings is currently a choice between a four-year veteran who was cut by his former team (Mike Gandy), a center who used to be a tackle (Trey Teague) and a converted tight end (Jason Peters).

"Every year is a challenge, especially in this age of free agency when it's hard to keep guys together for more than a few years," Bills offensive line coach Jim McNally said Saturday during the Bills' three-day minicamp. "We've got a good group here. We just have to find the right guy and see if he can get the job done."

Free agent pickup Gandy opened minicamp as the No. 1 left tackle, mainly because of his experience. Twenty of his 30 career starts in Chicago were at left tackle. The Bears felt he was a better fit inside, but after starting five games at left guard last season, Gandy was released in November.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Gandy has decent size, and McNally thinks he is big and strong enough to handle physical defensive linemen at the point of attack. McNally added that Gandy is a smart guy with the athletic ability to play in space.

"I think he has a second chance here," McNally said. "He has more experience than anyone else that we're using at that position right now, so we think he's the best guy to start it off and we'll have to see how it goes."

While many people look at left tackle as a huge question mark, Gandy sees it as an opportunity to prove he still has what it takes to be a solid starter in the NFL.

"At this level, every position is a challenge," he said. "I'm thankful the coaching staff is giving me a shot to win the job. All I can do is do my best and improve as a player and let the chips fall where they may."

The best-case scenario for the Bills is for Gandy to win the job. If he fails, Teague becomes a viable option.

Teague, who is an inch taller than Gandy but 10 pounds lighter, started 20 games at left tackle for Denver, and was signed by the Bills for the same purpose in 2002. But he has spent the last three years in Buffalo at center, the position where he made first-team All-Southeastern Conference as a senior at the University of Tennessee.

McNally doesn't want to move Teague because it would disrupt the continuity of the rest of the offensive line. But there is little doubt in McNally's mind that Teague would adapt quickly to tackle because he is an intelligent and technically sound blocker with good mobility.

"Obviously Trey hasn't played there a while, but I would think that he could get in there with a couple of weeks work and do a good job," McNally said. "I don't think it wouldn't be a problem for him if we have to make a move."

McNally and Teague hope it doesn't come to that. After being apprehensive about playing center, Teague has embraced his role as the anchor of the offensive line.

"I'm pretty comfortable at center right now, and personally, I'd like to try and take that position to another level," he said. "I've played tackle, so it won't be like doing something I'm not familiar with. Obviously if things come to that point, it's going to be for a reason. The bottom line for us this year is winning, and I'll do whatever I can to help the team."

Peters doesn't figure to be the starter unless McNally can work a one-year wonder with his project. Peters played tight end at Arkansas, a remarkable feat considering he's 6-4 and 328 pounds.

But the Bills think he is an intriguing prospect at tackle because of his great size, mobility and tremendous physical tools.

"He's got all the potential in the world," McNally said. "We're just trying to bring him along and not put a whole lot of pressure on him and see what he can do."

Peters, who spent the first half of his rookie season on the practice squad, got some playing time at offensive tackle when he was signed to the active roster in November.

"Being around Jonas Jennings and Marcus Price, they showed me all the ins and outs, and Mike Williams is helping a lot me now," Peters said. "I'm not really worried about starting or being a backup. I'm just trying to learn the position, learn the steps and techniques and get better at it every day."

McNally said it's too early to draw any conclusions on who will be the starting left tackle, especially since the Bills aren't playing with pads on.

He used last year's revolving door at left guard as example of how things can change. Marques Sullivan was No. 1 going into minicamp, but the spring ended with Mike Pucillo atop the depth chart. Lawrence Smith moved ahead of Pucillo in training camp and started the first eight games before Ross Tucker took over the rest of the season.

"Left tackle this year is no different than left guard last year," McNally said. "It's one of those things where until we get into Rochester (for training camp) and get into a couple of preseason games, we won't know. We're going to figure it out. It might take a game or two, but we're on the right track."

The Bills have to hope their left tackle candidates are productive and stay healthy because their alternatives are limited. They passed on a chance to trade running back Travis Henry to Arizona for L.J. Shelton and the veteran free agent pool is shallow.

But the Bills are happy with what they have, at least for now.

"I think we've got the right guys slotted in the right positions," McNally said. "So we'll go with them and see what happens."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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