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Injuries obscured O-line's potential

This is the fourth part of a series assessing the Bills' 2010 season. Today's installment deals with the offensive line.

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The Buffalo Bills went through their usual revolving door along the offensive line.

There were seven different starting combinations, which equaled last year's total. Ten players started at least one game.

Once again, injuries forced the Bills to sign guys off the street and throw them right into the lineup. Four different players started at right tackle and right guard.

The best offensive lines have continuity. The Bills haven't found much of that because of the constant turnover.

Left tackle Demetrius Bell and left guard Andy Levitre were the only linemen to start every game. Coming off major knee surgery, Bell sat out the spring practices, got limited work in training camp and was held out of midweek practices during the regular season. He's not a finished product, but the Bills still have hopes he'll develop into a quality left tackle.

"I thought Demetrius had an OK year," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "I didn't think he had a great year. And I know the injury, he couldn't practice Wednesdays at all the whole year, and I'm not trying to make excuses for anybody but I'm just stating facts, he didn't practice on Wednesdays. A year of strength and core development I think will help him tremendously. I think his upside is tremendous."

The Bills do have some good pieces on the offensive line. The unit even had some good moments this season. But it was often overmatched against stout, athletic defensive fronts.

"We had some challenges with injuries," right guard Eric Wood said. "For us to get better on offense, it has to start with the line. We have to get better."

*Positives: Levitre was the most consistent player on the line. He hasn't missed a game in his two-year career, no small accomplishment on this team. Wood started slowly, but played better as the season progressed. The highlight was his performance against Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year. One of the interesting developments of 2010 was Wood replacing injured center Geoff Hangartner for the last four games. Wood played well enough to make Gailey consider which position is best for the second-year pro.

"He played well at both I think we've got to do what's best for our football team and I don't know where that is today," Gailey said. "We need to get him settled into a spot and let him play. So we have to make a decision, but then you've got other good players at those positions, too, so that's going to be a tough call for us, to be honest with you about who's going to play where. That's going to be a hard one. I'm not looking forward to that one."

*Negatives: Right tackle continues to be a weakness. Cornell Green proved to be a bad signing and got released after suffering a season-ending knee injury. Undrafted rookie Cordaro Howard and free agent Mansfield Wrotto weren't much better as replacements. The Bills allowed 34 sacks, down 12 from a year ago. But the line was helped by Ryan Fitzpatrick's quick decision-making. The team didn't trust its tackles to go one-on-one against good pass rushers on a regular basis and used running backs and tight ends for extra protection. Although the Bills averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry, they ranked 18th in rushing. Running back Fred Jackson often had to get yards on his own because the line didn't get much of a push up front.

*Outlook: The Bills seem committed to Bell at left tackle, which is fine as long as he continues to improve. The bigger concern is right tackle. No one who played the position this season looks like the long-term answer. Ed Wang is still a question mark after a thumb injury robbed him of most of his rookie year. Gailey complimented late-season signee Erik Pears, who started the final game. But you'd like to think they would find a surer bet at right tackle going to camp. There is no one at tackle worth taking with the third pick in the draft, so the Bills might have to go the free agent route -- again. Hangartner might be left out in the cold if the Bills decide to make Wood the center permanently. They have a couple of interesting guard prospects in street free agents Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart. Both started games this season and Urbik can also play center.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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