Today, just five days before the Buffalo Bills open up their 2009 regular season schedule with a Monday Night Football tilt in New England, all eyes are on the team's brand new starting left tackle, Demetrius Bell. Bell, who returned to practice on Wednesday, became Buffalo's new starting left tackle after the team released veteran Langston Walker.
A source close to the team that I spoke with on Wednesday tells me that Bills decision makers viewed Walker's performance over the final two pre-season games as "pathetic." Buffalo's coaching staff released Walker after the seven-year veteran made, as they see it, a "complete regression" from the 2008 season. While those harsh words obviously don't speak much to the team's late April decision to tab Walker as the replacement to traded two-time Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters, it was a move the team felt it needed to make. More after the jump.
Walker could not adapt to no-huddle
Michael Lombardi of the National Football Post described Walker's performance on tape during the pre-season in the following succinct manner:
He was late off the ball, he was poor at cutting off the back side and he was not able to secure the edge in pass rush.
This objective assessment goes hand-in-hand with the sentiment at One Bills Drive. In addition to the regression, the team noticed - and anyone who caught a game on television or in person may have noticed this, as well, because I certainly did - that Walker was routinely winded in the pre-season. In the pre-season finale against Detroit, he was visibly struggling to catch his breath during drives, even while in his set awaiting the snap. Clearly, that wasn't going to work in the no-huddle offense, no matter which tackle position he played at.
In making this move, the Bills have obviously opened themselves up to harsh criticism. Buffalo endorsed Walker as a competent replacement to Peters after April's NFL Draft, where they did not, obviously, replace Peters with a rookie left tackle. Harsher critics point out that the outright release was not necessary, as Walker proved himself capable at right tackle over the past two seasons. I'm told that the term "complete regression" that was used applies to Walker the player, not Walker the left tackle - the team believes that his skills have diminished severely from 2008 to 2009, and that he would be a liability anywhere along the line.
Once again, the timing of a big move stinks
Many folks have openly wondered why it took the team so long to cut Walker, particularly since ESPN.com's Tim Graham informed us that Bell was the team's preferred left tackle almost three weeks ago. There's a pretty simple, two-part explanation for that as well - Bell's back injury prevented the team from making a drastic move too early, and as NFL Network's Jason La Canfora tweeted yesterday, the Bills were trying to trade him over the weekend. Once they were sure that Bell would be returning to practice and it became apparent they weren't even going to get a late draft pick for Walker, they pulled the plug. The money saved on the remainder of his contract is merely icing on the cake.
This wasn't a pretty situation yesterday, and it's not any prettier today. The team is now without both of its starting tackles from 2008. Walker represents the second significant investment along their offensive line that the team has cut since March (the other, of course, being OG Derrick Dockery). Bell replaces Walker in the lineup as the third starting lineman with exactly zero regular season NFL snaps on his resume. Their depth at tackle is rather pedestrian.
Time will tell if Buffalo's evaluation of Walker's talents, and whether or not he truly has regressed to the point of not having any value, even as a reserve, is correct. Given the team's talent evaluation over the past decade (especially when it comes to veterans), skepticism is most certainly warranted. Even still, the team made the move chiefly because they felt the player wasn't the same player that started in 2008. Now, they face even more question marks at left tackle, and certainly much more criticism - which only underscores their opinion on Walker.
Now, we turn our attention to Bell, who has a week to prepare for his first NFL start in hostile territory. We showed off this video this past April, and it's worth posting here again: here's a Bell scouting report from pre-draft 2008.