INDIANAPOLIS – The Buffalo Bills aren’t closing the door on Cody Ford playing right tackle in the years ahead.
They’re also not closing it on an eventual position switch, either.
Determining where Ford best fits moving ahead is one of the big questions facing General Manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott this offseason.
"Nothing he did last season, even when he had some moments that weren't his finest, said, ‘This guy can't play right tackle for us,’ ” Beane said Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine. “I don't think he'll ever be a left tackle, but he can play right tackle in the NFL.”
Whether he stays there long term remains to be seen. Ford was charged with seven sacks allowed as a rookie by analytics website Pro Football Focus, which tied for ninth most in the league. His foot speed has been questioned, leading some to believe a move to guard would be beneficial.
Ford played 684 snaps at tackle and 55 at guard, according to PFF.
"Playing offensive tackle as a rookie in the NFL is probably one of the hardest transitions,” Beane said. “I thought he had some good moments and I thought he had some, what we call, teachable moments. If you look across the league, very few tackles come in and just, turn key, drop them in and they're blocking these top edge rushers. A lot of these offenses in college, they're not putting their hand in the dirt and they're not facing guys who are edge rushers like this.”
From Weeks 12-15 of the 2019 season, the Bills faced Denver’s Von Miller, Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence, Baltimore’s Matt Judon and the Pittsburgh duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. That’s a lot of heat coming off the edge.
"I thought Cody continually improved,” Beane said. “With that said, he also showed the versatility to go inside. He also showed in game, he can go to right guard. Some guys struggle if they don't have the full week (of practice reps) leading up to (a game). Cody barely had any snaps when he did that. Most of his snaps in practice were at tackle. He jumped right in there. That's not easy. That shows you his mental skill set for game, which is one of the things we found attractive.”
The Bills place a high value on that type of versatility. At some point, though, Ford will need to settle into a position. If the team ultimately determines his best spot is at guard, it would open up a huge question mark at right tackle. Veteran Ty Nsekhe, who split reps with Ford for much of the season, will be back in 2020. Nsekhe, though, turns 35 in October and is entering the final year of his contract. He’s not a long-term option at the position.
That brings us to free agency and the draft. We’ll know much more about what the Bills’ plan for Ford is depending on what they do.
"We have a feel for where he’s best, but at the same time he has a history of playing both, so we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves,” McDermott said. “It wouldn’t be smart strategically to do that right now with where we are, with where Cody is in his development. It wouldn’t be a smart move for us an organization to say he’s ‘just this.’ ”
The top available right tackle in free agency is expected to be Tennessee’s Jack Conklin. He might command a contract that pays $15 million annually.
A cheaper alternative would be drafting a tackle in the first round, but that would mean passing on help for other areas, primarily wide receiver or edge rusher.
The best-case scenario for the Bills involves Ford developing into a top-flight tackle.
While the team does have a potential vacancy on the interior of its offensive line if left guard Quinton Spain departs as a free agent, Beane showed last year that it’s possible to find serviceable linemen without breaking the bank in free agency. Combined, Spain and right guard Jon Feliciano counted just more than $5 million against the salary cap in 2019.
"As I sit here today, a lot of it may depend on what we do this offseason,” Beane said. “Cody has given us the versatility that he can go in at guard. That's kind of how I'm looking at it. Let's see what our best options are in free agency or the draft, and then we'll put him, he's versatile enough, he can play either spot. We'll put him wherever is best suited based off the other player we may add.”