Of the nine new players the Buffalo Bills selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, there's very little question that No. 3 overall pick Marcell Dareus - tasked with being the centerpiece to the team's new-look run defense - holds the most importance. If I'm casting a vote for a guy that is next in line to Dareus, it's the team's second fourth-round pick, Clemson tackle Chris Hairston.
We knew going into draft weekend that Buffalo's offensive tackle situation was a mess. We also guessed as Round 1 wore on that the Bills weren't going to get a plug-and-play starter at the top of the second round, particularly after Green Bay snagged Derek Sherrod to close the first round. While the Bills targeted other positions, tackle remained unaddressed. Until they took Hairston in the fourth round, that is.
Hairston is a very intriguing prospect. Right off the bat, he's got two things working in his favor: size and experience. That alone gives him a shot at earning the right tackle job at some point in his rookie season.
A three-year starter at left tackle for Clemson, Hairston was on the pine for a year, as he came into the college ranks with a ton to learn and a lot of work to do on his body.
"It took a lot of work and I really had to learn how to play the game of football," Hairston said upon being drafted by Buffalo. "I was very raw when I first got there. Now, a lot of hard work has paid off and I’m excited to be coming up to Buffalo and playing.
"It didn’t come easy at all," Hairston continued. "I had a coach that taught me how to watch film, how to recognize different situations and it took a long time for me to actually pick it up. But I was able to recognize things before they happened and it just helped the game go by a half a second slower. You just have to have that in order to be able to pick up those stunts, blitzes, twists and all that."
By his sophomore season, Hairston was playing left tackle, where he blocked for Bills running back C.J. Spiller during Spiller's final two seasons at Clemson.
"It’s going to bring back good old times just having a guy with that much talent in the backfield," Hairston said of reuniting with his former teammate. "I’ve seen what he was able to do on the field and witness him make game breaking plays. It’s just going to be good to get back with him and play ball with some people I have played ball with in the past."
Hairston is still a work in progress. He is perhaps the strongest offensive tackle in this year's draft class, at least in the upper body, and he led tackles at the 2011 NFL Combine with 33 reps on the bench press. However, he is slightly limited athletically, where he has adequate quickness to play the edge, but is also heavy-legged, not as strong as you'd like in the lower body and not a great straight-line athlete. That's why Bills coaches plan to move him to right tackle, where he'll have a tight end and a back to chip more often than if he were on the left side.
Erik Pears and Mansfield Wrotto (who is better suited for guard) are the likely contenders to start on opening day at right tackle. Don't be surprised if Hairston is pushing them for playing time by year's end. His biggest asset is his size, as he measures in at 6'6", 326 pounds and has massive 35-plus inch arms. But size isn't his only asset.
"He’s a smart kid – very good Wonderlic score," said Bills scout Tom Roth on Saturday. "He’s very good, very smart and very tough. All of the intangibles are very good on him. Everything is good."
Bills head coach Chan Gailey also likes the fact that Hairston has played in an offense that allowed him to develop some run blocking technique at tackle.
"Unlike some of these guys these days, he’s had his hand on the ground," Gailey said Saturday. "He’s been in a three-point stance. He knows how to come off the football and block for the run game. Some of these guys today are only in a two-point stance all the time, so that’s something that we look at as well. He’s got some tenacity to him. He’s very, very intelligent, and we like a lot of things about him."
Pears was a street free agent a year ago, and the Bills have been talking him up for months - so much so that we've got him penciled in as the front-runner to win the right tackle job. Wrotto was signed to a contract extension earlier this spring, so he's definitely in the mix. In the end, neither possesses a shred of the upside that Hairston does.
In taking Hairston in the fourth round, the Bills made their most significant draft-day investment in the offensive tackle position since 2002, when they infamously made Mike Williams the fourth overall pick. Since that point, and before taking Hairston, the earliest the Bills had taken a tackle was a year ago, when they took Ed Wang in the fifth round (No. 140 overall). In 2006, the team took Brad Butler in the fifth round, No. 143 overall. Both Butler and Wang began their Bills careers at guard.
It seems likely that Hairston, like he did at Clemson, will need to wait a year before he cracks the lineup. That would be fine; he's still raw, needs to improve his core and lower body strength, and there's a whole offense he'll need to learn, likely too quickly to allow him to play right away. But I've got a gut feeling that we'll see Hairston play by the end of the 2011 season - and when he does, he won't let go of his new status for quite a while.