When the Buffalo Bills began working rookie Chris Hairston at left tackle during the latter parts of their pre-season schedule, most assumed that they were trying to figure out if Hairston could be the team's primary swing tackle, backing up both sides in his first professional season. After yesterday's acquisition of Sam Young, however, it is now clear that the team's plans for Hairston are different - and much more interesting.
Speaking with Shredd & Ragan on WEDG on Tuesday, Bills GM Buddy Nix all but confirmed that not only is the team very high on Hairston, but they're grooming him at left tackle.
"We've only got one backup tackle, and he's a rookie, and he's trying to back up both sides," Nix explained. "That's tough, because it's more learning for him. We think he's going to be a really good one. But if you put him in one place and leave him, he'll help you quicker. So that's our thinking with (Young) - he'll be at right tackle, and he'll be our backup at right tackle if he does what he did in Dallas."
That, of course, would indicate that Hairston will be the primary backup at left tackle. That's where incumbent starter Demetrius Bell - who does not fit the physical lineman prototype the team is seeking, who lost starter's reps during the pre-season, and who is entering the final year of his contract - resides.
Even though he admitted that the team has a depth problem along the line, Nix is confident that the team is better up front than they were a year ago.
"Nobody listening will believe this, but we're much better in the offensive line," Nix said. "We're better than we were, obviously, and we're better than people think we are."
For now, the team's depth chart appears set. Nix indicated that Andy Levitre would be the backup to Eric Wood at center, and that both Kraig Urbik and Colin Brown have gotten reps in the pivot, as well. Hairston backs up Bell. Young backs up Erik Pears, and the only pure guard on the roster, apparently, is Chad Rinehart.
Back to the issue at hand, however: this clearly spells trouble for Bell, the team's de facto starter at left tackle for the last two seasons, and who played pretty well at times during the 2010 season. He was not good during pre-season action, however, and Chan Gailey gave some of his reps to Levitre, citing inconsistency as the motivating factor.
The Bills are clearly trying to get bigger and tougher up front. Of the team's nine offensive linemen, three are holdovers from the previous regime. Average Bell, Levitre and Wood together, and you've got a 6'4", 308-pound offensive lineman. Average the six hand-picked newcomers (Urbik, Pears, Hairston, Young, Rinehart and Brown) together, and you've got a 6'6", 325-pound lineman.
Time will tell if the Bills are able to get away with massive, slow-footed linemen like Hairston and Young at tackle, where they're willingly sacrificing top-notch pass protection ability for more size and toughness. If this is the long-term plan, Gailey must be prepared to build an offensive scheme that constantly accounts for extra men protecting the edge against speed rushers.
To close, this is obviously good news for Hairston. The left tackle position now appears to have direction in Buffalo. Whether or not it's a worthwhile direction remains to be seen.