It's just one man's opinion, but after watching the 2011 Buffalo Bills for six games, it's looking like the team has finally found some long-lost stability at the ultra-important left tackle position.
In 2007, the Bills had one of the most stable and promising situations at left tackle in the NFL. That year, fourth-year pro (and second-year starter) Jason Peters emerged as one of the best young tackles in the game and made his first Pro Bowl.
In the four years since, the Bills have had the exact opposite of stability at the position. After his '07 success, Peters held out of training camp in 2008 seeking a new contract, missed the first game, and struggled to get into a groove by year's end. Prior to the 2009 NFL Draft, the Bills traded Peters to Philadelphia for three draft picks - including a first-round pick that turned into center Eric Wood - and made Langston Walker their starting left tackle. He didn't play a snap there, as the team released Walker and made Demetrius Bell - who'd never even been active for an NFL game coming out of Northwestern State - their new starting left tackle.
Bell struggled mightily to the surprise of no one, and by mid-season was put on Injured Reserve with a season-ending knee injury. A rotation of players like Jonathan Scott, Jamon Meredith and Kirk Chambers played in his place, and again, the results were disastrous.
Yet the Bills continually ignored the position at the top of the draft. In '09, the team passed on Michael Oher in favor of Aaron Maybin, who is no longer with the team. In 2010, after the team re-structured its front office under new GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, the team again passed on talented tackles (such as fan-favorite Bryan Bulaga and Anthony Davis) in favor of running back C.J. Spiller.
When the 2010 season opened - Gailey's first as head coach - the Bills rotated left tackles early in the season. Bell was the de facto starter, but as he continued to get himself into football shape, the team rotated Meredith into games to spell Bell and keep him fresh. Meredith was so poor that he was gone by year's end, but Bell stuck around and eventually locked down the position - though he was inconsistent enough that fans still clamored for a tackle as the Bills held the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Again, the NFL Draft came and went without a high-round tackle this past April, but this time around, there was a change: the team spent a fourth-round pick on Clemson tackle Chris Hairston. It was the highest the team had drafted a tackle since they took Mike Williams at No. 4 overall in 2002 - and Nix made it clear very quickly that the team was grooming Hairston to be the left tackle down the line.
In six games this season, the Bills have gotten generally excellent play out of their left tackles as the offense has finally turned a corner under Gailey's guidance and the stability offered by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Bell was excellent and consistent in the team's first four games, but a shoulder injury forced him out of the lineup for the last two contests. In stepped Hairston, who took his lumps as a rookie - but who also flashed solid raw skills. He looks like a keeper.
The Bills have 10 games remaining on their schedule this season, and they also look like they've got two left tackles that can play on NFL Sundays for a while. Bell is a free agent after the season and will be seeking a new deal - and he's certainly played well enough to explore that possibility - and that will be interesting to monitor. Though the future is not clear at this position, it's certainly several steps ahead of where the team was when Peters decided to hold out for more money.