fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell

When Marv Levy took over the Bills for the second time, it seemed like the last gasp of an owner who could barely remember what the face of success looked like. After Levy’s first offseason, many observers panned his moves as the decisions of a man who the game had passed by, specifically referring to the selections of Donte Whitmer and John McCargo (widely seen as reaches) and the signing of Peerless Price in free agency as the team’s #2 wideout. One of those observers was, of course, your friendly Football Outsiders correspondent.

Since then, Levy hasn’t been perfect, but he’s shown that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Whitmer’s been excellent at safety, while the jury is still out on McCargo, and Price has been a relatively awful part of the passing game. Levy appears to have cut bait on the right time at Takeo Spikes, and drafted an excellent replacement for London Fletcher in Paul Posluszny, but the team found no replacement for Nate Clements and has struggled defensively because of it.

The most money, though, has been poured into the offensive line. The Bills’ big signing this offseason was an unsexy one in guard Derrick Dockery, who got the Steve Hutchinson starter contract ($49 million) at about 85% of Hutchinson’s performance level. They also added former Raider Langston Walker and versatile journeyman Jason Whittle to shore up a line that had several holes in it.

The irony of all this is that at the most important position on the offensive line, the Bills have discovered a player who’s better than all the money they threw at their problems this year, while doing so at a fraction of the investment.

Jason Peters’ college career was an inauspicious one. He played tight end at the University of Arkansas, catching 28 passes for 300 yards over three seasons. His junior year saw him catch 21 of those 28 passes, and he was named All-SEC Second Team following the campaign. He left for the pros following the season.

He went unselected in the 2004 draft, and signed with Buffalo as a free agent, sticking with the team through training camp. He saw time at both tight end and tackle, but he showed enough athleticism to block a punt and return it for a touchdown.

In 2005, he became a full-time tackle halfway through the year, starting at right tackle for the last nine games of the campaign while also catching J.P. Losman’s first career touchdown pass. Last year, he continued his even more unlikely trip up the offensive line difficulty spectrum, moving to left tackle after seven games and excelling over the rest of the campaign.

It was last week, though, that Peters was really called into the limelight, when reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor paid Peters quite the compliment. The Buffalo News wrote:

“He’s probably the best left tackle I face this year,” Taylor said during a conference call with the Buffalo media this week. ” . . . He’s a big, athletic guy who is strong and moves very well. He’s got the size. He does a lot of things well. You don’t see him get beat a whole lot. He’s equally as strong in the run game as he is in the pass game. I think he’s a helluva player.”

When one considers the difficulty teams have in locating, acquiring, and keeping a left tackle cheap, Peters’ claim to being an elite left tackle makes him one of the most valuable — and unlikely — assets in pro football.

Let’s take a look at the left tackles that each of the 32 NFL franchises had pinned their hopes on this year, and see how they were acquired.

The “Home?” column denotes whether a player was homegrown or not. As you can see, many of the players here have been selected and retained by the team that picked them — while 24 of the 32 left tackles in the league coming into the season were homegrown, only 21 (if you consider Eli Manning homegrown) of the 32 quarterbacks in the league currently play for the team that originally drafted them. Among this list are eight top-ten picks. Generally, what we see here are teams making a huge investment in a left tackle and sticking with him for as long as they can. The players who have been acquired from other teams have generally disappointed (Jonas Jennings perhaps most prominently).

As you can see, Peters is one of only three undrafted free agents to be starting at left tackle, the other two being Denver’s Matt Lepsis and Oakland’s Barry Sims, both of whom suffered catastrophic knee injuries in their final year at school (Sims in the Hula Bowl) and went undrafted while rehabilitating their knees. Peters comes from a totally different angle than they do. In addition, Peters is one of the few players at the position who wasn’t drafted as a left tackle, let alone a tackle. Of the left tackles who came into the season as the starters, several have played right tackle and moved to left tackle or vice versa before returning, but very few have seen more than a handful of snaps at even another offensive line position, let alone at guard.

What makes Peters’ ascension even more remarkable and beneficial is how much he’s costing the Bills. Following his second season, the Bills were so sure about Peters ability to become an impact player somewhere that they ripped up his cheapo undrafted free agent contract and gave him a five-year, $15 million deal. This is the sort of cost-saving money that smart franchises like the Eagles employ frequently in the same vein that, say, the Cleveland Indians do to avoid paying young players the huge amounts of money they’d get in arbitration. While there’s no arbitration in football, free agency comes earlier and contracts are nonguaranteed, which is why it pays to lock up players on long-term deals. When you compare Peters’ deal to the rest of the league (as courtesy the contract data compiled by the fine folks at Rotoworld), he’s being paid a pittance.

“RC?” stands not for the delicious Royal Crown cola, but instead whether the tackle is still on his rookie contract or not. Of players signed to long-term deals, the only ones who came cheaper than Peters were two stopgaps, Ephraim Salaam and David Diehl.

At this point, Jason Peters represents not only a player with a unique path to his job and a interesting skill set, but he’s one of the ten most valuable players in football, when you consider bang for buck. His retention as an undrafted free agent is perhaps the biggest credit that can be given to the Tom Donahoe regime in Buffalo, and his resigning is the best thing Marv Levy’s done in his second stint as Bills supremo.