The 2012 NFL Draft begins three weeks from today, and with left tackle Demetress Bell inking a five-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills are down to just one man at the position. The blind side is generally considered the team's most pressing need.
Here's a question worth discussing, though: is it imperative that the team find a player that can step in and start from Day 1? The answer to that question had better be 'no,' because it's not looking likely that a tackle of that caliber will be available to Buffalo with their No. 10 overall pick.
In 2010, GM Buddy Nix passed on well-liked prospects such as Bryan Bulaga and Anthony Davis in favor of C.J. Spiller for two reasons: the step-in-and-start prospects (Trent Williams and Russell Okung) had already been taken, and the team didn't view Bulaga or Davis as an instant upgrade. Most of the tackle options likely available to Buffalo this year - Riley Reiff, Jonathan Martin, Mike Adams and Cordy Glenn, among others - seem to fit the Bulaga/Davis category in terms of how the Bills are likely evaluating them. Obviously, we can't know that for sure, but it's a safe guess for now.
Then there's the fact that the Bills operate under the philosophical notion that intra-positional competition makes the team better. When they couldn't find a starting-caliber left tackle in 2010, they took a project (Ed Wang) and let the likes of Bell and Jamon Meredith duke it out at left tackle. It is not at all inconceivable that, in the event that the Bills don't see a guy that can start right away, they take a player that can compete for the job with 2011 fourth-round pick Chris Hairston, who already has some blind-side experience under his belt.
Even though Nix and Gailey have effectively said that Hairston probably isn't ready for the full-time job this off-season, they've also gone out of their way to continue to prop him up as a prospect. The organization clearly likes him. He will be part of the picture one way or another.
It seems to me that Bills fans are focusing too heavily on the obvious answer to the question posed in the headline of this blog post: yes. Of course the Bills need a starting left tackle. What they don't need is a subpar prospect in over his head that the team sells as a starting left tackle. Nix has made it very clear via spoken word and action that he won't take that route in addressing a need. The question - the one that Bills fans should really be contemplating - then becomes this: if competition is Plan B, how long can the Bills wait to find a satisfactory first-year challenger to Hairston?
Note also that the idea that the Bills won't be able to find an instant starter at left tackle doesn't mean that they won't take a left tackle with their first-round pick. Buffalo has only one other glaring hole in its starting lineup - that being wide receiver - and it's very possible that Nix won't see a clear upgrade at that position, as well, depending on which prospects are available. Other positions will come into play, as well as some prospects at non-need positions. This is the beauty of an improving football team: need becomes a bit less of a factor at the top of the draft, especially when competition is a goal.
In that scenario - the one in which the Bills don't see a sure bet at tackle, but also don't see a clear upgrade at receiver, and have a slew of prospects graded fairly evenly - it's conceivable that Nix will spend a Round 1 pick on a tackle that, at least initially, will only be around to compete with Hairston. That probably isn't the ideal way for Nix and the team to spend a first-round pick, but clearly, tackle can't be discounted in the first round.
I'm approaching the draft in this fashion, as I believe it most closely mimics what the Bills do as an organization: I'll end up picking a few positional groups, and looking for a clear upgrade among available prospects at those positions. If none is to be found, add to the competition.