ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Yeah, Demetrius Bell felt the pressure. He had no choice.
It engulfed him when he emerged from the tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and even more when he was in another team's stadium. The boos were so loud he could feel their percussion, both home and away. He knew the coaches pacing the sideline and his teammates in the huddle were especially counting on him.
"It's everything you can think," Bell said. "It's millions watching at home. It's this Pro Bowler across from you, the player next to you, the preparation that goes into the week."
Six days before last season began, the focus was abruptly on Bell. The Buffalo Bills handed him the second most important job on the field despite the fact he hadn't played an NFL down.
He became a left tackle in the NFL, the quarterback's blindside protector. The team's success could hinge on his every flinch. One false movement and the man he's paid to shield lies in a crumpled heap.
"It's goose bumps," Bell said. "Know what you're getting yourself into. It's probably the greatest experience I ever had in my life, but it can get nasty out there."
Did it ever get nasty. Bell had a brutal season. He became the symbol of Buffalo's overwhelmed offensive line and remains a question mark headed into 2010.
Bell has been unable to participate in this week's voluntary team workouts. He's still recovering from surgery on his right knee. But unless the Bills trade for a veteran, say, Jared Gaither of the Baltimore Ravens or Jammal Brown of the New Orleans Saints, the left tackle job appears to be Bell's to lose.
The Bills didn't take a tackle the first two days of this year's draft and haven't selected one earlier than the fifth round since Mike Williams in 2002.
"I would say I'm still in the driver's seat," Bell said Tuesday after watching the Bills practice from the sideline. "I don't think I've reached a quarter up the ladder. I'd say I'm just now scratching the surface.
"I'm not saying that I know everything about football, but I'm learning."
You have to wonder what the Bills were thinking when they shoved Bell into the starting lineup last year at a position so important it ranks behind only quarterback and defensive end in top-end salaries.
Bell didn't play organized football at any level until August 2005 at Northwestern (La.) State. The Bills took a seventh-round flyer on him in 2008 but allowed him to dress for only one game as a rookie.
"Man, when I first entered the league, I didn't know diddly-squat," Bell said.
Yet he was thrust into the starting lineup last September with zero NFL game experience and at an intensely controversial time for the Bills.
He not only replaced two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who had forced his way out via trade, but also Langston Walker, their most experienced offensive lineman. Walker was the assumed left tackle when Peters left, but the Bills cut Walker a week before the season opener.
Bell was the NFL's most penalized player before a knee injury in Week 10 ended his season. He also missed a game because of a groin problem. He missed eight games yet still finished the season ranked 12th with 10 penalties committed.
ProFootballFocus.com broke down film to analyze the best pass blockers last year, and Bell ranked dead last among all offensive lineman. ProFootballFocus.com charged Bell with five sacks, seven QB hits and 18 pressures on only 248 pass-blocking snaps.
Circumstances, however, make all performances relative.
"I thought he did a really good job," Bills center Geoff Hangartner said. "It's a tough position to play and all the chaos made it even tougher. You're protecting your quarterback's blindside 99 percent of the time against guys like Julius Peppers.
"The thing that he's lacking right now is experience. The guy works hard at it and when he figures it out and gets some craftiness about him, he has a chance to be a heck of a good left tackle."
Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson has long been a critic of the Bills' decision to play Bell last year. But Williamson sees upside.
"True starting left tackles don't grow on trees, but Bell is interesting," Williamson said. "He was very raw coming out of college, having mostly played basketball in his life. But he moves well, as basketball players do.
"If he has gotten much better fundamentally and with his overall strength, then there might be something there to mold. Players with less talent have been adequate starting left tackles, but it isn't an easy position to play."
Bell admitted fear was his greatest motivator last year. That's common among even the toughest professional athletes, but they don't always like to discuss it out of well, fear, outsiders will consider them weak-minded.
"You can say you're not scared," Bell said, "but I'm telling you. ... I think that makes me play to the best of my ability. It's a gut check. It really is a gut check.
"Don't get beat. That's the No. 1 mentality. Don't let the quarterback get hit."
Added Hangartner: "If you take a poll of any locker room, the biggest motivator is going to be the fear of failure. I honestly believe that's what drives most great athletes."
Bell said he doesn't ever want that fear to subside.
He wants to keep feeling the pressure because it's what makes an NFL player feel alive, especially when he's the one entrusted to protect the quarterback.
"No matter how many snaps you take, there's going to be goose bumps," Bell said.