Entering the 2010 NFL off-season, most NFL experts expected the Buffalo Bills to address two positional needs right off the bat: quarterback and left tackle. In retrospect, it's become clear that the Bills' new decision-making hierarchy, led by GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, took a slightly different approach to addressing those positions, choosing to add only a seventh-round quarterback and a fifth-round left tackle to the players that they inherited from the previous regime.
As such, the Bills have major question marks at arguably the game's two most important positions. Speaking strictly in terms of the left tackle position, however, the Bills also have a three-way race for the starting job with three pretty athletic, young, high-upside players.
Nix and Gailey spoke of "stacking players on players" prior to April's NFL Draft, and that's exactly what they've done at left tackle. Though we can only guess at which positions Gailey will have his linemen playing come training camp in July, we believe that the team will primarily use three players on the blind side. We discuss the left tackle position and those three players after the jump.
Playing in the AFC East, which features four teams sporting the 3-4 defensive alignment, Buffalo's left tackle - whichever player ends up starting - will play six critical games attempting to block lighter, quicker, explosive 3-4 outside linebackers. This division has some good ones, too. As such, the Bills have targeted athletic players for the blind side - players with the foot quickness and natural athletic ability to slide and mirror in protection. In doing so, they have sacrificed some of the power and grit that the rest of the line possesses. Don't expect the Bills to run off left tackle much in 2010, unless stud left guard Andy Levitre is pulling - none of the Bills' left tackle prospects are, or likely ever will be, powerful run blockers.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
77 - Demetrius Bell. Bell took over as the team's starting left tackle just prior to Week 1 in 2009, when the Bills released Langston Walker, originally tabbed to replace the traded Jason Peters. Bell made eight starts with incredibly spotty performances before landing on IR with an ACL injury. Still on the road to full health, Bell's experience - which actually counts for something in this discussion, unfortunately - makes him the early favorite to re-claim the starting left tackle role. Bell is a good athlete capable of moving and getting to the second level, but his lack of length causes problems in pass protection, and he gets caught reaching frequently. He also worked through a tremendous struggle with penalties throughout his eight starts last year, and needs to clean that up.
69 - Jamon Meredith. A mid-season acquisition after the Bills lost starting right tackle Brad Butler for the season, Meredith made spot appearances at tackle for the Bills throughout his rookie season, mostly at right tackle. Although he's listed at 304 pounds, I think there's a good chance that that number is generous. Meredith is a lighter guy, but again, he's a quick, agile player capable of mirroring in pass protection. His first NFL experience came against Julius Peppers, and though he was tossed around like a rag doll on occasion, his play was actually rather admirable. Meredith is longer than Bell and has more upside, and he spent Gailey's first rookie OTA as the first team left tackle. There's no player on the roster more likely to usurp Bell than Meredith.
71 - Ed Wang. A fifth-round pick just this past April, Wang's impact has already been felt off the field, as he's a bona fide star in China. Remarkably similar to the first two players on this list, Wang is a fleet-of-foot athlete that's much better in pass protection than as a run blocker. He lacks upper body strength, and like Bell, has only marginal length (33.75-inch arms, compared to Bell's 33.25-inch arms and Meredith's 34.5-inch arms). He has some upside and fits best as a left tackle, but unlike the guy listed ahead of him here, he might get the benefit of a little pressure-free time on the practice field to hone his game.
Bell is two years and a hair over $1 million in total away from completing the four-year rookie deal he signed in 2008. Meredith's contract status is not specifically known, as he was plucked off of Green Bay's practice squad last September. It's safe to assume it's a short, very cheap deal. Wang will likely sign a four-year deal as a fifth-round pick. Nothing remotely debilitating here, and that's no accident.
Recent reports from ESPN's Adam Schefter and various other sources have linked the Bills to Baltimore tackle Jared Gaither, who is reportedly on the trade block. Gaither has been moved from left tackle (which he's played for the last two seasons in Baltimore) to right tackle to make room for second-year pro Michael Oher. Clearly, if Buffalo is able to acquire Gaither prior to - or even during the early portions of - July's training camp, he'd come in and claim the starting left tackle job immediately, and with incredible ease. But there's nothing imminent on that front, and I'm not counting on it happening.
Barring that trade, Buffalo will enter camp with yet another open competition for a starting job, with Bell and Meredith the more serious contenders.
I am not high on Bell. I'm not terribly high on the other two players, either, but I'm particularly worried about Bell, as he's the least athletic player of the bunch, doesn't possess the length, is not naturally powerful, and has the injury to compound the situation. I have no idea how the Bills feel about him, but I'm going to predict that Meredith opens the season as the starting left tackle, with Bell a swing reserve. Wang is a developmental prospect that, with any luck, won't need to see the field much next season.