Nearly every interesting Buffalo Bills training camp battle worth monitoring this summer is nebulous in nature, thanks predominantly to a defense that makes light of traditional positional roles, the changing nature of NFL offenses and the clean slate afforded by a new coaching staff. One of the few battles that's fairly cut and dried will occur at right tackle, where veteran Erik Pears will take on third-year pro Chris Hairston for the starting gig.
Pears, 31, is the fourth-oldest player on Buffalo's roster, trailing just Rian Lindell, Fred Jackson and Bryan Scott. He's coming off of a 2012 campaign that was not only cut short by a hip injury that required surgery, but also severely hampered by it on the field - he struggled mightily as a blocker, particularly in pass protection. It's important to remember, however, that he was playing through injury - and that he was good enough as a 16-game starter in 2011 to warrant a three-year contract extension, which will pay him $2.1 million in base salary this season.
Hairston, meanwhile, is still just 24 years old, making a meager $555,000 this season. He started eight games in his second season, mostly as the fill-in for Pears at right tackle - though he did spot Cordy Glenn on the left side, as well. That swing tackle role has been one Hairston has filled admirably in his first two pro seasons, in which he's made 15 starts between left and right tackle. Given Pears' struggles last season and Hairston's solid run blocking abilities, it's been assumed all off-season that Hairston enters training camp as the favorite with the offense potentially gearing towards a more run-oriented system. Plus, purely from age and contract angles, Hairston is a clear favorite over Pears, everything else being equal.
Everything else may not be equal, however. No one is quite sure what Hairston's pro ceiling is, particularly in pass protection, where Hairston can often struggle to replicate the success of one of Pears' bad days. That flaw in his game may keep the door (wide?) open for Pears, considering that the team will also be incorporating no-huddle concepts, moving as fast as possible and throwing the ball quite a bit. Add in the fact that Hairston is a much better fit as a swing tackle than anyone else on the roster, and the ideal scenario may just be for Pears to emerge as the starting right tackle this season.
One last note worth mentioning: Pears was able to make it onto the field for a good number of OTA and mini-camp practices this spring, while Hairston missed nearly the entire spring practice schedule recovering from his own 2012 season-ending surgery on his foot. Ankle and foot injuries have plagued Hairston's pro career thus far, which is something worth keeping an eye on - and his late-season surgery has given Pears a head start heading into training camp.
Over the long haul, there's little doubt that the starting right tackle position is within Hairston's grasp. Whether or not he can usurp Pears for that role this season remains to be seen. Who do you believe will be the Bills' starting right tackle in Week 1?