PITTSFORD – The Buffalo Bills have a competition ongoing for the starting right guard position.
Whether it’s an intense competition is too early to tell.
Just how serious a challenge Chris Hairston will be able to mount against incumbent Kraig Urbik remains to be seen, because Hairston is coming off a full year of inactivity and still is trying to work himself back into top condition.
Hairston has split snaps with the starting unit about equally with Urbik during much of the first week of training camp. Urbik took all the snaps with the starters Saturday night.
Urbik, a 6-foot-3, 328-pounder who has started at right guard the last three seasons, knows he’s being pushed and says, in effect, bring it on.
“Chris Hairston is a good player, they’re trying to get him some reps, see what he’s all about,” Urbik said. “It doesn’t matter who’s behind me or in front of me. I’m going out every day trying to be the best guard I can be, and that’s all I can do. I’m not worried about what reps I get or whatever. It’s the NFL.”
“It’s the NFL” means you have to prove yourself every year, every day.
Urbik, 28, played well enough in 2012 to earn a four-year contract extension near the end of that campaign.
Last year he fought through some bumps and bruises and arguably wasn’t quite as effective. He had a rough outing against Tampa All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in Week 14. His games against the Jets and New England the second half of the year weren’t great. But he had good games, too. He was solid against Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Miami at home, in particular.
“The year before I got nicked up a little bit,” Urbik said. “I definitely played through a couple things, but that’s part of the job. Everyone’s got something, an ankle or a back or shoulder, something you’ve got to play through. It’s not something that prevented me from doing anything.”
Urbik played 98 percent of the snaps last season.
“I thought I played pretty well,” he said. “The Tampa Bay game, obviously, I didn’t play too well. It’s on me. I’ve got to play better against better players like that. But I thought overall I played pretty well.”
Urbik had a clean-up surgery on his knee in January.
“I feel better than in at least 18 months,” he said. “I feel great. I feel healthy. I’m really excited for this camp.”
Hairston, 25, spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons as a backup tackle for the Bills and made 15 starts. But he sat out all last season due to an illness unrelated to football, the nature of which neither he nor the team has revealed. It was not a heart issue, Hairston said.
But he did not receive medical clearance to work out until late April.
Hairston spent the month before camp working hard to get in better shape and was thrilled to pass the team’s conditioning test last week.
“That was a big deal,” Hairston said. “I came in a few days early so I could get ready for it and do it with the strength and conditioning guys.”
The 6-6 Hairston weighs 346. He’d like to get down to the 330 to 335 range.
“This camp is a lot of getting back into shape,” Hairston said. “A lot of guys get the chance to come in and supplement what they do in the offseason with what we do in voluntary workouts. I sort of started at Ground Zero. I got to do a little. The strength and conditioning coaches have helped me prepare really well.”
Hairston never played a snap of guard in his life until minicamp in May, so he has a lot to learn about getting low and using his leverage in tight spaces.
The fact he’s splitting snaps with Urbik is a sign coach Doug Marrone wants to push Urbik. Marrone has labeled the right guard job up for grabs.
“They’re giving me every opportunity to learn how to play guard, putting me in a good position so I can help this team,” Hairston said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me and the instruction. I’m keeping my nose to the grindstone.”