This is the third in a series examining potential free agents at positions where the Buffalo Bills have a need.
Teams in the market for an offensive lineman will likely find help – either in the form of a starter or backup or both – in free agency.
The Buffalo Bills could use that sort of infusion of talent up front.
Their left tackle, Cordy Glenn, spent more time watching than playing last season because of chronic ankle and foot problems. Their right tackle, Jordan Mills, is a serviceable bridge starter until someone better comes along. Center Eric Wood is being forced into retirement by a neck injury. Other than Richie Incognito, who is entering his 12th season, the situation at guard is less than encouraging.
If the Bills wish to address any or all of these areas by shopping in the open market, chances are they’ll like what they see.
Tackle could offer as many as three top-level players, two of whom are from the New England Patriots: Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming.
Solder, a soon-to-be-30-year-old left tackle, should attract one of the biggest contracts offered to a free-agent offensive lineman. The Patriots generally shy away from such deals. However, they aren’t likely to allow both of their tackles to get away, so if it comes down to a choice – and it probably will – they would likely make an effort to retain Fleming, who is 25.
Ja'Wuan James, a right tackle from the Miami Dolphins, has plenty of talent. But he comes with risk because of his history of injuries. James spent the final eight games of last season with a hamstring injury and missed 17 of 48 regular-season games in the past three years.
Other right tackles worth considering are the New York Giants’ Justin Pugh, who has a good deal of athleticism despite a body that looks as if it would be better suited for guard; Pittsburgh’s Chris Hubbard, who did a nice job in the 10 games he started last season in place of injured and suspended Marcus Gilbert; New England’s LaAdrian Waddle, who did an impressive job as in injury fill-in last season; Cincinnati’s Andre Smith, who is versatile enough to play every spot other than center; and Baltimore’s James Hurst, who also is versatile and a good backup.
The best free-agent guard is Andrew Norwell of the Carolina Panthers. He has made steady improvement since joining the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2014 – contributing significantly to the offense that helped the Panthers reach Super Bowl 50 – and was named first-time All-Pro after last season. Norwell is the type of player any team would prefer to keep, but he’ll likely become the NFL’s highest-paid player at his position and that could be difficult for the Panthers considering they already have huge money invested in their other guard, Trai Turner, and left tackle Matt Kalil.
In 2016, Norwell told the Charlotte Observer he was happy to be an under-the-radar member of the Panthers’ line. “I like coming in and just doing my job,” he said. “I’m a blue-collar-type of a guy. I like working hard.”
Besides Norwell, there are at least a half-dozen guards who will potentially hit the open market with enough ability to be starters pretty much anywhere. They are San Francisco’s Brandon Fusco, Green Bay’s Jahri Evans, Tampa Bay’s Evan Smith, Tennessee’s Josh Kline, Dallas’ Jonathan Cooper and Minnesota’s Joe Berger.
Fusco has shown amazing durability, starting all but two of 48 games since 2015. Cooper is one of the more intriguing offensive lineman headed toward free agency. From 2013 to 2016, he failed to stick with the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns, but managed to come back strong as a 13-game starter with the Dallas Cowboys last season.
Center appears to have the fewest quality options, but there are some worthy of consideration. The best of the bunch are Baltimore’s Ryan Jensen and the Los Angeles Rams’ John Sullivan.
The Ravens will probably try to retain Jensen, although they can expect to face some strong competition from other teams. Sullivan also is in line for a major pay raise after establishing himself as a key factor in the Rams’ dramatic offensive improvement last year while playing under a one-year contract for just under $1 million.
One of Sullivan’s biggest fans was quarterback Jared Goff, whose play skyrocketed in 2017 after a shaky rookie season the year before.
"It takes a lot off my shoulders for sure, with his ability to understand defenses and make a lot of calls up front," Goff told the Los Angeles Times. " If I see something, and overrule, I can. Ninety-nine percent of the time he's right."