A lot of folks—both fans and draft experts—presume that just because the Buffalo Bills lost Demetress Bell in free agency that the team is going to spend its 10th overall pick in 2012 on a left tackle. However, the Bills may already have Bell’s starting replacement in Chris Hairston.
With their first four picks in the 2011 NFL draft, Buffalo selected defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, cornerback Aaron Williams, middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and strong safety Da’Norris Searcy. The first three of those players will be defensive starters in 2012, while Searcy provides valuable depth to a quality safety group.
If you ask me, that’s a nice looking four rounds of drafting.
But the Bills weren’t done finding starting-caliber players. They used their second fourth-round pick, acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in the Marshawn Lynch trade, on a hidden gem, former Clemson left tackle Chris Hairston. By shipping Lynch to clear up a crowded backfield, the Bills may have actually found their left tackle of the future.
Hairston came out of college as a pretty polished prospect, with a great frame for a blindside protector. His strengths included his size (6'6", 326 pounds) and his ability to use his power and strength to his advantage. NFL.com noted that he was “not susceptible to the bull rush” while at Clemson, and it highlighted the prospect’s intelligence, awareness and natural feel for the game.
As a three-year starter at left tackle for the Tigers, Hairston offered not only valuable experience but also durability. The only knock on Hairston entering the draft was his raw athleticism, or lack thereof. Scouts suggested that the big guy needed to play a little lower and figure out how to use his body mass to play with improved technique.
Last year, Hairston was forced into game action with the Bills due to injuries across the offensive line. He played in 13 games, starting seven, faring pretty well actually against strong defensive teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans.
In his first NFL campaign, the rookie was charged with only three penalties and allowed four sacks, according to Pro Football Weekly. Though the four sacks aren’t gleaming with brilliance in only seven starts, it’s rare that rookie left tackles shine in their first season. And considering the woes that came with Buffalo’s injury-depleted line, his numbers really aren’t that bad.
Watching Hairston play in live game action last year actually made me think he was a better athlete than advertised. For his size, he is quick on his feet and has impressive agility. In fact, if we compare Hairston’s combine numbers from last year to those of Riley Reiff—who many have projected to the Bills with the 10th overall pick this year—it’s evident that the two really aren’t all that different in terms of athleticism:
|Combine||Chris Hairston (2011) ||Riley Reiff (2012)|
|Weight||326 lbs.||313 lbs.|
|40-time||5.43 secs||5.23 secs|
|Bench Press||33 reps||23 reps|
|7.90 secs||7.87 secs|
|4.70 secs||4.75 secs|
These numbers suggest that while Hairston may not have the best straight-line speed in the game, he is stronger than Reiff and has a two-inch advantage in arm length. The three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle results show that both players have similar agility, while Hairston recorded a better vertical jump.
We all know by now that combine measurements and numbers don't guarantee anything. But Hairston already has a year in the Bills' system, possesses an ideal frame for a left tackle and clearly has the physical abilities to match up with one of this year's top offensive line prospects.
I'm not saying the Bills won't or shouldn't draft Reiff with the 10th pick; but if they don't, they could nab an offensive playmaker like wide receiver Michael Floyd and find a left tackle in another round.
Hairston is only 22 years old—he'll be 23 this month. If he gets an opportunity to start for the Bills in 2012 and can prove he can handle the job, he could end up being the guy the Bills have been looking for over the last decade.
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