ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 04: Erik Pears #79 of the Buffalo Bills blocks against Derrick Morgan #90 of the Tennessee Titans at Ralph Wilson Stadium on December 4, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York.Tennessee won 23-17. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Something funny happened on the way to the catastrophic failures that most Buffalo Bills fans foresaw for the team's offensive line this season: the team gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL, and between its top two running backs, the Bills ran for 1,495 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. That'll work, I suppose.
Yet, while there was far more stability at the offensive tackle position than anyone would have guessed there would be, and taking the unit's shocking success into account, there are still questions. How good is this group, really? How much aid did they get from Chan Gailey's quick-strike, get-the-ball-out-fast-at-all-costs passing attack? Is the position as settled as we'd like it to be heading into a new season?
Things are looking up at tackle, but there are problems to resolve. Our analysis of the position lies after the jump.
Age: 29 (30 in June 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2015. Signed a three-year, $9.3 million deal in December of 2011.
Remember when Pears was considered the weak link on the offensive line, way back in the summer months? Now he's the team's most stable pass protector and has the most job security of anyone up front, having inked a three-year contract extension less than a month ago. Though he did experience some bumps along the way in the form of miscues and penalties - what tackle doesn't? - Pears was remarkably consistent and durable in his first full season as the Bills' starting right tackle. He'll hold down that job for the foreseeable future, and is the most capable right tackle the team has employed in years.
Age: 27 (28 in May 2012)
Contract: UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT
After a promising 2010 season in which he played 16 full games on the blind side, Bell crashed back to reality this past season. His play on the left side was generally good - and even occasionally superb - but he also missed nine games with shoulder and knee injuries. In three seasons as a starter, Bell has now missed 17 games due to injuries, and the fact that two of those are knee injuries has to be concerning.
Bell, having just completed his fourth year in the league, is an impending unrestricted free agent. His injury history will likely prevent him from getting a ton of interest on the open market, so the chances are better than even that he'll be back at a reasonable salary to compete for the left tackle job again. That's not a lock, mind you; just a gut feeling.
Age: 22 (23 in April 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2015. Entering year two of a four-year rookie deal with undisclosed financial parameters.
Last year's fourth-round pick wasn't supposed to play left tackle, nor was he supposed to play right away. But he did, and he was forced to on both fronts. At first, Hairston responded well, and Buffalo's offense didn't hiccup when Bell went out of the lineup. As the season wore on, however, Hairston became more of a liability on the left side, where his lack of athleticism left him extremely prone to getting cleanly beat by speed rushers. Things got bad enough for Hairston that Bell was rushed back into the lineup after a nine-game layoff (where he promptly re-injured himself).
The team is high on Hairston, and for good reason: he's a massive blocker (6'6", 332 pounds) and an intelligent player. When they drafted him, however, they said they viewed him as a right tackle; only out of need did Buddy Nix proclaim him a sufficient swing tackle. Hairston has the best chance to be the team's left tackle long-term, but that may not be an ideal scenario for the team. Either way, he'll likely be competing for that job this summer.
Age: 24 (25 in June 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2014. Due $1.065M in base salaries over the next two seasons.
Acquired off of waivers from the Dallas Cowboys early in the season, Young dressed for just three games this season and barely saw any work at all. Young is another huge (6'8", 322 pounds) and supremely intelligent player, which seems to be the team's chosen theme for its linemen. There's not much else to know about him, except that he'll likely be back competing for a roster spot in July.
POSITIONAL OUTLOOK: Between the two tackle positions, the Bills have stability on the right side in Pears, and they have a budding competition on the left side, assuming Bell is re-signed. That's a scary prospect for the latter half of that equation; Bell's a huge injury liability and may not even be back, while Hairston's in-season regression shouldn't make the team eager to hand him any sort of prominent job. With that in mind, the team could always stand to try to upgrade its depth at the position, as well, so expect at least one new face - two if Bell leaves - to provide more competition, specifically for Young.
FREE AGENCY: Aside from Bell, don't expect the Bills to spend a lot of time mulling available options at this position amongst the veteran pool. That is not Nix's style, and it's not even Doug Whaley's style, for that matter; just take a look at Pittsburgh's offensive line over the years - it's been composed of draft picks and scrap-heap types. The Bills have made it work reasonably well to this point, and it's clear that the organizational philosophy is to approach this slot frugally.
2012 NFL DRAFT: Last season, Nix, Whaley and the team's scouting staff made Hairston the highest-drafted offensive tackle by the Bills since Mike Williams was the No. 4 overall pick in 2002. Hairston was a fourth-round pick. Again, this regime doesn't seem to believe in spending premium resources on the position, instead looking to acquire big, smart guys that can be serviceable. At most, look for a mid-round pick - but it also seems likely at this point that another tackle or two will be added somewhere, with younger prospects the better bet.