It’s that time of year again at Pro Football Focus. The time when we scratch beneath the surface to highlight under-appreciated players from every NFL team. These Secret Superstars are the men putting in the dirty work to allow other players to shine or the guys performing on limited snaps, ready to explode onto the national scene with increased playing time in the year to come.
In last year’s locked-out offseason, we highlighted players such as Danieal Manning (at that time a Chicago Bear), the entire Houston Texans offensive line, and–most notably–Geno Atkins … all went on to have pivotal seasons for playoff teams. We did, however, manage to strike out on some players who had years wrecked by injuries (hopefully we won’t curse too many with the injury bug this year).
We’re kicking off our 2012 Secret Superstar series with a selection from the roster of the Buffalo Bills. Last year, the Bill we highlighted was George Wilson who had another solid season in 2011. This time around, we’re turning our attention to the trenches.
Quietly, the Buffalo Bills had one of the better offensive lines in the entire league last season. The versatility and quality of play of our first Secret Superstar for 2012, Andy Levitre, made him a crucial cog in this offensive line; a line that overcame a rash of injuries to provide a solid base for Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ offense all season long.
A second-round pick out of Oregon State in 2009, we’ve seen Levitre develop and slowly flourish after a challenging rookie campaign. Now entering his fourth season in Buffalo, Levitre has seen his run blocking, pass blocking, and overall grades improve each year with the incremental growth from his rookie year crystalizing in a quality third season.
He joined the Bills in the same draft as Eric Wood as the Bills made a clear statement of intent to improve their interior offensive line, but early returns were limited for both players. While Wood lost half of his rookie season to injury, Levitre had a torrid second month to his NFL career and finished with a disappointing -9.7 overall grade. But the signs were there that Levitre could be something special.
Four times in that rookie season Levitre graded above +2.0 overall for a single game with his Week 15 performance against the New England Patriots in particular–that game included a +2.3 grade for his run blocking–showing that a quality player was ready to emerge. A year later, Levitre improved his consistency but still had his share of bad games, struggling with the vaunted Ravens defense in Week 7 of 2010, yielding five pressures from his left guard spot.
Wind the clock forward and the finished article was revealed. Through Week 6 of 2011 Levitre held an astonishing overall grade of +14.5, easily among the league’s best while never having a negatively-graded game.
Pulled from Pillar to Post
From that point forward, though, Levitre’s development at left guard was disrupted as a spate of injuries hit the Bills’ line at key positions. As one of the most experienced players in a youthful group, it fell to Levitre to pick up the slack and fill the void. First off, Levitre moved outside to left tackle to cover for the injury to Demetress Bell on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blind side. He would then be forced to slide over and step in for Eric Wood at center in Week 11 when the man he was drafted with succumbed to another injury.
In that first spell at tackle, Levitre acquitted himself extremely well, yielding only a sack and four pressures on 106 passing plays across three games. A span that saw him face such pass rushers as DeMarcus Ware, Brian Orakpo and Anthony Spencer. Those are numbers that a “true” left tackle would be proud of, let alone a guard moving outside midseason with very little preparation for the role. Once over at center, he struggled with his run blocking and the Bills quickly moved him back to guard in Week 12, but that stint at left tackle showed that, in his third season, Levitre had secured a spot as one of the league’s most valuable and versatile interior offensive linemen.
Unfortunately for Levitre and the Bills, he never really settled again after returning to left guard, putting in inconsistent performances and struggling as a run blocker. His season grade as a run blocker of -3.9 may appear a little disappointing, but it is worth noting that until injuries to others disrupted his season, his grade as a run blocker was +4.9, a massive step forward from his -4.0 run blocking grade in 2010. On rushes off left guard in 2011, only one team (Miami) earned a higher Yards Per Carry average than the Bills’ 6.0 on 42 carries off Levitre’s outside shoulder.
On top of those stats to Levitre’s outside, he is also proved essential to the Bills as a blocker in space, showing real quality while pulling. At 305 pounds, Levitre isn’t necessarily the ideal size to be a dominant, road-grading run blocker, but he augments his solid in-line play with some quality efforts on the move; a job that leaves many other offensive linemen looking lost.
In the Bills’ Week 15 loss to the Dolphins, he exhibited this quality by getting the upper hand on Karlos Dansby–one of the league’s better inside linebackers–in space. He got off to a fast start pulling right and neutralizing Dansby as the linebacker attempted to fill the gap off right guard. The block served to spring C.J. Spiller through the line on a 24-yard touchdown. Levitre also pulled off a pair of cut blocks on Dansby while getting downfield on screen plays, helping to finish first down runs by Spiller and Tashard Choice.
His quality in space wasn’t isolated to just the one player and one game. Sabby Piscitelli won’t look back fondly on being driven off of the line as he tried to fill a gap on a 9-yard carry by Fred Jackson back in the Bills’ Week 1 win over the Chiefs. It’s a part of the game that is often overlooked, but when you watch a blocker like Levitre in space you realize that it adds an extra dimension to an offense.
A Star on the Rise
Levitre’s play is clearly going only one direction and if the Bills can provide him with some stability in where he lines up (though he proved himself adept at providing cover when needed) then there is no reason to believe that the Bills won’t have one of the league’s best left guard’s on their hands. His +14.5 overall grade through those first six weeks was better than players like Evan Mathis, Carl Nicks, Marshal Yanda, and Josh Sitton … the only players who ranked higher than Levitre at guard for the full season.
Levitre’s ability in pass protection at both guard and tackle cannot be questioned. Over the last two seasons whether you look at our grades (+15.1) or the stats (35 total pressures allowed), he is amongst the elite pass protectors at guard. Combined with clear improvements in his in-line run blocking, and his consistent quality blocking in space, Levitre is ready to use the 2012 season to break into the NFL’s upper echelon of guards.
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