If there is one singular position that the Buffalo Bills are most likely to address with their first-round pick in this year's NFL Draft, it's offensive tackle. The team's unquestionable biggest need is quarterback, but it's not a lock that Oklahoma's Sam Bradford or Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen are available when the team picks at No. 9 overall - or that the Bills like either enough to take them. The team may lean in the direction of a nose tackle or a pass rusher, but neither need is quite as urgent as the need for a starter on the blind side.
Earlier this week, we discussed the growing possibility that the Bills might not be left with much of a choice at tackle, either. In a year solid on top-end depth but short on sure-fire prospects, it appears that there may be an early run on the draft's surest OT prospects prior to the Bills' ninth overall pick. We won't worry about that for now; if that run happens, the Bills will have options at other need positions, and just like with any draft-day prediction, that projected OT run isn't a sure bet to occur.
Instead, we'll focus on discussing the best seven tackle prospects available this year. Why seven, you ask? Simple: because in my view, there are only seven tackle prospects available this year that have a good shot at starting in any capacity as rookies. That's a few more than last year's draft class, but last year's crop had better prospects at the top of the list, too. Our rankings are after the jump.
FIRST ROUND PROSPECTS
1. Russell Okung, Oklahoma State. By far the safest bet amongst the tackles this year, which is why he sits at the top of this list. This is not a blue-chip prospect, folks - he could still use technical polishing, and for all of the positive surrounding him, he'll be a much better fit in a finesse offense, where his lack of dominant physicality won't be exposed as frequently. Still, he's got prototypical size all the way around, is equally proficient as a pass protector and a run blocker, is a superb athlete, and should quickly blossom into a long-term starter at left tackle with good coaching. This is a really good football player; I just question whether or not he'll ever be considered great.
2., Rutgers. Last year, scouts grew weary of the off-field antics of Alabama's enough for his stock to plummet all the way to the No. 6 overall pick, where Cincinnati snapped him up. Davis is in a similar position this year, as he is arguably the most physically gifted lineman available this year with the most baggage. Quite easily the most physical blocker available this year, Davis is an outstanding athlete, even at 323 pounds, and has the best combination of footwork, mobility and hand punch of anyone on this list. He's a natural blocker, does well in space, and plays with a nasty demeanor. The question marks surrounding his work ethic, conditioning and motor are concerning, obviously, but if he's put into a business-like atmosphere with an established football culture - much like was a year ago in Baltimore - those issues should resolve themselves, allowing his talents to dominate the discussion.
3. Bryan Bulaga, Iowa. As in the case of Okung, there's something to be said for being a safe investment this year, and Bulaga definitely falls into that category. One of the hardest-working, most intelligent prospects available anywhere this year, NFL coaches would love to have this guy around, even if personnel evaluators question his long-term potential. Physically, Bulaga's got it all - good size (save that arm length, which won't be as big a concern the more technically proficient he becomes), bulk, athleticism and footwork. He's a bit rough around the edges technically and not overly physical, but he's the type of player that will overcome those shortcomings because he'll work at it. It might be a good idea for Bulaga to start on the right side until he's cleaned himself up enough to switch over, but given the state of the league, that's not likely to happen - and if it doesn't, he'll probably have some bumps and bruises early.
4. Trent Williams, Oklahoma. Easily the hottest prospect in the draft at the moment, Williams is drawing comparisons to Oher - a supremely gifted player ideally suited for the left side who had an underwhelming senior season because of questions about his motor and effort. Williams will go higher than Anthony Davis because he possesses similar athletic talents and doesn't carry anywhere near the same amount of risk. Williams is the best tackle in this class at the point of attack, which could make him endearing to a cold-weather team like Buffalo, particularly on the left side. A superb athlete with great agility and the capability to consistently protect the edge, Williams is also the most versatile of this year's prospects, as he'll be able to play in virtually any blocking scheme. Still, if I'm picking between Williams and Davis, I'm going Davis, because between the two, it was Davis that got it done more consistently on the football field. But what do I know? Williams has the look of a Top 6 pick at the moment, and the general feeling is that Buffalo would snap him up were he to be available at nine.
5. Charles Brown, USC. I'm not sure that Brown is a great fit for Buffalo, because he's very much a finesse blocker, and he's still so raw as a technician that it'd be tough to expect him to be balanced as both a pass and run blocker so early in his career. Brown might be the highest-upside pass protector available this year, however, and that's saying something given the talents of Okung in that department. Still, Brown's something of a one-trick pony - he's not stout at the point of attack, doesn't offer much versatility (he's a left tackle through and through), and could require a great deal of patience as teams ask him to improve his strength and work on the technical aspects of his game. Still, he's going to be a hot commodity for pass-happy teams at the bottom of the first round, and the chances that he'll slide all the way to the second round have pretty much diminished entirely.
SECOND ROUND PROSPECTS
6. Rodger Saffold, Indiana. Linked to Buffalo because of his working relationship with current Bills assistant OL coach Bobby Johnson (his position coach in college), Saffold will be a well-evaluated prospect by the Bills. Saffold has quietly risen up draft boards thanks to his athletic talents (he's going to make a very solid pass protector), his vast quantities of experience, and his solid intangibles. Saffold is very much considered a safe pick, which again, definitely counts for something this year. Again, however, we're left desiring more at the point of attack and in the run game when talking about Saffold, and he'll appeal much better to teams that spend most of their time throwing the football. There's an excellent chance Saffold sneaks into the first round - Indianapolis at pick 31 makes a great deal of sense - but in a draft lacking left-side starters, the Bills may feel compelled to pull the trigger on a guy they'll know well that may not be ideal for a power running offense.
7. Bruce Campbell, Maryland. Al Davis, eat your heart out - Bruce Campbell is an athletic freak. Seriously, it's hard to undersell just how ridiculously impressive some of the things the 314-pound Campbell can do. But my goodness, is Campbell a boom-or-bust prospect. There's a chance somebody will take him to start on the left side immediately - one of the pass-happy teams at the bottom of the first round seems a likely candidate - and they'd be taking a major risk. Campbell is inexperienced (only 17 starts at the college level), has serious durability issues (turf toe, knee), and needs so much work technically and in the film room that he's a disaster waiting to happen as a day one starter. Still, you don't find athletes like this every day, and for a team with an established starter on the left side that has the luxury of patience, Campbell is far more than a worthwhile investment based on his athleticism and potential alone.
There are other highly intriguing tackle prospects, of course. Massachusetts' Vladimir Ducasse (who is being looked at as a guard as well), Hillsdale's Jared Veldheer and Abilene Christian's Tony Washington are all considered long-term LT prospects, and there's a great deal of eventual starter depth on the right side (Iowa's Kyle Calloway, LSU's Ciron Black and Tennessee's Chris Scott, for starters). If Buffalo wants to get a starter on the left side - and I'm pretty sure we all agree that that's a must - they're going to have to do it very early on in the draft.