This post is alternately titled "Ten Bills To Decide 2010, No. 2: Whichever Left Tackle Chan Gailey Names His Starter."
The Buffalo Bills thought they'd figured out the left tackle position. Then Jason Peters held out, missed some early action during the 2008 season, and was subsequently traded to Philadelphia in April of 2009. The team then decided to move 365-pound Langston Walker to the blind side, a move which lasted approximately four months, and ended with Walker's pre-season release and the promotion of 2008 seventh-round pick Demetrius Bell to starting left tackle.
Bell only appeared in eight games last season - the first experience of his NFL career - before landing on IR, but struggled with penalties and inconsistent play prior to his departure from the lineup. Buffalo would go on to play four more players - a list including Jonathan Scott, Kirk Chambers, Jamon Meredith and even left guard Andy Levitre - at left tackle in Bell's place.
Most experts believed that the Bills would address their left tackle position with the No. 9 overall pick this past April, but the only reinforcements for the position came in the form of fifth-round pick Ed Wang, who is not expected to see much (if any) playing time as a rookie. Thus, the battle for the starting left tackle position is in full swing, with Meredith holding an early lead on Bell.
Back in mid-May, when I broke down the state of the left tackle position, I left you all with the following analysis and prediction that may not ultimately stand the test of time:
I am not high on Bell. I'm not terribly high on the other two players, either, but I'm particularly worried about Bell, as he's the least athletic player of the bunch, doesn't possess the length, is not naturally powerful, and has the injury to compound the situation. I have no idea how the Bills feel about him, but I'm going to predict that Meredith opens the season as the starting left tackle, with Bell a swing reserve.
When I said Bell was the "least athletic player of the bunch," that's not to say that Bell isn't athletic. A former high school basketball star, the 6'5", 307-pound Bell is certainly athletic enough - that's what made him such an intriguing seventh-round selection in 2008. He's more than athletic enough to handle speed rushers at the NFL level when he's technically sound. I think Wang is a better athlete, however, and Meredith possesses solid athletic chops, as well - and is a bit longer, which helps him better protect the edge. I like Bell's athleticism just fine; I just like Meredith's and Wang's better.
Bell has not participated in any on-field work during spring OTAs and mini-camps, as he continues to rehabilitate the knee injury that ended his season during a Week 10 loss to Tennessee last November. (That means the last head coach he literally played for was Dick Jauron, folks.) He has been at team facilities for said rehab, and has been on the field watching practices and participating in team meetings alongside fellow recuperation extraordinaire Eric Wood. Asked at the close of mandatory mini-camp in late June whether or not Bell would be ready for the start of training camp, Gailey said there was "no question" that he'd be ready to go.
Yet Meredith still has an entire off-season's worth of work with the first unit at left tackle more than Bell does at this point. Why am I not writing the article about him? It's simple - Gailey publicly praised Bell's athletic abilities, and hasn't said much about Meredith. Given that this organization is refreshingly transparent under Gailey and GM Buddy Nix, I'm going to assume that Gailey's kindness towards Bell is indicative of more than just coach speak. Here's the quote in its entirety:
He’s an amazing athlete, first of all. Run, jump and change direction - all of that was very good. He went in and played as rookie. He started as a rookie. You don’t know how hard that is especially at offensive line. And quarterback and offensive line may be the hardest places to start in this league as a rookie. And he went in and did that and held his own. Now, he made some mistakes, and you hope the second year he doesn’t make those mistakes. But he is really a very good athlete.
More than the praise for his athletic abilities, however, was Gailey's commentary about Bell's experience. Folks, Bell - with his eight games of starting experience - is the most experienced left tackle on the roster. Add in Gailey's confidence in Bell's athletic abilities and his belief regarding the difficulty of assuming such a key role at a young age, and I don't think it's a stretch (though it's hardly a lock) to assume that Gailey has Bell in mind as his opening day starter at left tackle.
Entering the first year of yet another re-building phase, Buffalo's new decision-making team has decided to build a foundation. Perhaps the biggest part of that foundation, from the team's perspective, is figuring out what it has in several young players, in particular along the offensive line. We're all pretty sure that we didn't like what we saw from Demetrius Bell in 2009, but his potential remains solid. It is absolutely imperative that the Bills exit the '10 season with more answers along the offensive line than they currently have - and how Bell performs in his third professional season is perhaps the biggest question mark in that area. Bell's got the tools, but ultimately, his spring setback could pave the way for a guy like Meredith to sneak into the lineup ahead of Bell - in which case you can replace Bell's name with Meredith's on this list.