It's a position that wasn't overly productive for the Buffalo Bills in 2007, yet is one of the more important positions in head coach Dick Jauron's Cover-2 defense. It's also a position that was hit hard by the rash of injuries that overtook Buffalo's roster last season. It's certainly a position that stands to be upgraded during the off-season. But did you know that it may, in fact, have to be Buffalo's top priority this off-season?
That position is outside linebacker. Let's break it down:
Crowell was arguably Buffalo's most consistent defender in 2007, as he led the Bills with 126 tackles while piling up two sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery and a safety. The three-year starter has developed into a nice young leader on a young defense, and once the talent around him can stay healthy (and gets one more upgrade), he's likely to progress into an even more stellar defender. Crowell was one of the players that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell sent on blitzes most often.
Will Improve in '08 if - he continues to get more comfortable in coverage :: he's utilized on the blitz even more :: his linebacking mates stay healthy
Here's a stat for you: middle linebacker Paul Posluszny racked up 25 tackles in three games. Ellison compiled 38 in 12. Both are starters. See the problem? I like Ellison - he's a smart, hard-working player who would do anything for his coaches - but he's physically overmatched and psychologically overwhelmed (read: too passive) to be successful at linebacker. Since he plays on the weak side, he's in coverage more often than not (likely contributing somewhat to his poor tackle totals), but he doesn't make enough plays to warrant being handed a starting job next season. A roster spot, absolutely; he'd be much better off in a reserve/special teams role, however.
Will Improve in '08 if - he can stay healthy :: he works on playing with a nastier demeanor :: he improves his hand technique, allowing him to shed blockers
Wire spent most of the '07 season battling various injuries; the result was a woefully thin linebacking corps and more issues than normal on kick coverage units. Wire, unlike Ellison, plays with the physicality and leverage that makes him a far more consistent player in this type of scheme; that, along with his veteran leadership on a young special teams unit, virtually locks up a spot for him on next year's team. His value to this team is vastly underrated, even though he rarely shows up on the stat sheet.
Has been one of Buffalo's best special teams players for a long time. Haggan played well in spot duty early in the season (when injuries forced him to start), and at points he was Buffalo's best linebacker against the run. The unrestricted free agent stands a good chance at coming back in much the same role he's assumed for the past few seasons.
Much like Haggan, Stamer's biggest value to the Bills is as a special teamer. Defensively, he only sees the field in goal line situations; at some point, the Bills are going to have to cut ties with specialist-only players if they're going to upgrade the overall talent of their roster. If Stamer stays (he's also an unrestricted free agent), it may only come with a heavy endorsement from Bobby April.
The young veteran was on again, off again as far as the Bills' roster goes - meaning he was signed, released, and signed again. He's an unrestricted free agent; he's certainly not more of a priority than Stamer and Haggan, so it's unlikely he's a Bill in 2008.
Talk about ups and downs. Harrison failed to make the final roster prior to September; he was signed after the injury bug hit; and as soon as he gets onto the field for his first regular season game, he tears his knee up and was lost for the season. If he's got practice squad eligibility left, look for him to land there; otherwise, his tenure as a Bill is done.
Don't let appearances deceive you here - the Bills are close to a mini-crisis at this position. The reasoning is three-fold: their veteran specialists are unrestricted free agents; they need a serious upgrade over Ellison; and perhaps most importantly, the final year of Crowell's deal is 2008. If the Bills don't make an addition or two at this position this year, Ellison may be their top outside linebacker come 2009. Think we won't address the position now?
Possible additions: mid-priced veteran; one to two early-round selections
Possible subtractions: Haggan, Stamer, Joe, Harrison