You probably remember a fateful day in April when the Buffalo Bills traded two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters to the Philadelphia Eagles. Peters, a former undrafted free agent that established himself as one of the game's rising stars at his position, cut his teeth with the Bills. He was a big, freakish athlete coming out of Arkansas, and the Bills turned him into a dominant force. No matter how his career ended - and it wasn't pretty, what with 11.5 sacks surrendered in 2008 and two separate contract squabbles - it's never easy to trade a player that you've crafted from NFL infancy.
Now the Bills are turning to veteran Langston Walker to fill the void. Signed prior to the 2007 season from Oakland, Walker has spent most of his career (including both seasons in Buffalo) as a right tackle. He has roughly two games of experience on the left side.
Walker is everything that Peters isn't. He's a good football player, but clearly doesn't possess anywhere near the athletic prowess that Peters does. He's also a much less dynamic personality than Peters, as he handles the media well (and provides some comic relief in the process) and isn't the type to make waves regarding his contract status. He's a pro's pro - solid, unspectacular, and consistent to the point that he's able to mask his deficiencies, which in his case are his size and how it meshes into the athletic demands of his new position.
Clearly, Walker has big shoes to fill. As he is protecting the blind side of QB Trent Edwards - who has missed all or part of seven games due to various injuries in his first two seasons - Walker's importance is obvious. Without Edwards, the Bills' season is likely over, and without solid play from Walker, the chances of getting a full season out of a healthy Edwards are slim to none.
It is important to note, however, that Walker is not "replacing" Peters in the traditional sense. The Bills will not be asking Walker to do the things that Peters did for the Bills' offense and its line. Peters is an unusually gifted athlete; the team showed its confidence in Peters' athletic abilities by leaving him out on an island on virtually every pass play in the playbook.
Walker won't be left on an island nearly as much, because he's just not athletic enough to handle that demand. He is athletic - there's a reason that Walker is regarded as a better pass protector than run blocker, and it's due to his vastly underrated athleticism - but not to the point where he can be left alone to handle the game's best pass rushers. He'll get help early and often. He won't have to go his new job alone.
That's close to a scary proposition considering the youth of the rest of the offensive line. The team will likely start two rookie guards (Eric Wood and Andy Levitre). Center Geoff Hangartner has never been a full-time starter at the NFL level, though he does have a significant amount of playing time - as does right tackle Brad Butler, who has not played tackle since his senior year at Virginia. There will be growing pains as this line gels. The rapidity with which its players assimilate to their new positions hinges first and foremost on how quickly Walker gets comfortable at left tackle; once he and the team are comfortable, the rest should fall into place.
The Bills have bigger problems at the moment than the left tackle position, simply because Walker is a smart, experienced player. There are obvious concerns with this now-permanent move. Even though there are bigger fish to fry in Buffalo, that shouldn't diminish the importance of Walker's role this season.