In an effort to bolster the depth of their interior offensive line, the Patriots signed former Buffalo Bills center Bill Conaty on Thursday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Conaty spent all of his six NFL seasons in Buffalo, primarily as a backup. The 30-year-old former Virginia Tech All-American started 18 of his 67 career games, all but one at center. He started all 16 games for the Bills in 2001 but lost his job last year to free agent acquisition Trey Teague. Conaty played in 11 games for the Bills in 2002, mostly appearing on special teams.
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 1997, the 6-2, 300-pound Conaty battled his way onto the Bills active roster. He made his first career start as an extra tight end in the 1998 season finale at New Orleans when the Bills opened the game on the goal line following a turnover. In 2001, he was named to USA Today's "All Joe Team," which recognizes "overlooked, ignored and hard-working" players.
The Patriots have tried to improve their depth inside in each of the past three seasons but have been unable to do so. In 2000, oft-injured Lance Scott signed but his balky knee never improved enough for him to make it to training camp. The next year, veteran Joe Panos signed and figured to fight Joe Andruzzi for a starting job at right guard, but he didn't make it to camp either, opting to retire due to lingering neck pain.
Last year, Bill Belichick wanted to give the starters competition once again, only to have Rich Tylski follow Panos' lead and retire very early in camp after a long career. Grey Ruegamer served as the backup center/guard in 2002 and performed well, earning a pair of starts while participating in 13 games.
But Ruegamer signed with Green Bay as a free agent earlier this offseason, leaving the Patriots thin once again. Stephen Neal's remarkable progress has thrust him into the mix at guard, but Belichick likely wants a backup with the ability to play center and Conaty certainly fits that mold. Mike Compton can play center (he has switched occasionally with starter Damien Woody in the past in shotgun situations) but as the starter at left guard a true backup would be a better alternative.
Conaty also has experience as a long snapper, which could make him attractive as a potential fill-in if Lonie Paxton was forced out of the lineup due to injury.