State of the Bills Roster: Linebacker

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MLB Paul Posluszny (above) should improve in second full season (photo source)

Now that the 2009 NFL Draft is in the books and off-season player acquisition will crawl at a snail's pace, Buffalo Rumblings has begun re-examining the Buffalo Bills' revamped roster. We continue off our 'State of the Roster' series this morning with a look at the linebacker position. Previous installments: QB, RB, TE, OT, G/C, DE, DT, S.

Entering the 2008 NFL regular season, linebacker was supposed to be an emerging team strength for the Buffalo Bills.  Then veteran Angelo Crowell was placed on Injured Reserve before the season began; he has since signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent.  Meanwhile, play from the team's starters last season was hit-and-miss, with big plays in some games outshone by highly average overall play in most others.

Not much has changed at linebacker for the Bills at the top of the pecking order.  As it stands now, the trio of 'backers that ended the '08 season as starters will inherit those roles for next season.  In a critical year for the Bills, however, the team may not be done addressing the position, as the team is still in play for free agent LB Pisa Tinoisamoa.  For now, however, the team has added some parts, but the question is whether or not those parts are significant enough to raise this group's level of play.

STARTER (WLB): Kawika Mitchell
Last year's key addition at the position put together a productive, yet inconsistent 2008 season.  While his stat line was impressive (82 tackles, a career-high 4 sacks and 2 INT) and he made clutch interceptions in victories over San Diego and Denver, he also disappeared for stretches and fought bouts of poor tackling.  Mitchell is what he is - a big, tough player that can help you in a lot of ways and make big plays.  He's a pro's pro.  But he's not a defensive anchor in that he won't make plays for you game in and game out.  That's fine - he is what he is, and that's just a good football player.  A bit more consistency would be nice, however.

STARTER (MLB): Paul Posluszny
The two-year pro wrapped up his first full season as a starting linebacker in the NFL as the Bills' leading tackler.  He was consistent, and for a player that was essentially a rookie, that's a good sign.  What's missing from the arsenal of Poz is big-play ability; he's not a great pass rusher, and he seemed a hair slow recognition-wise defending the pass.  The latter will hopefully change with experience; Poz does have the ability to be a strong pass defender.  The real question surrounding Poz isn't centered around a lack of talent; it's whether or not his upside is as considerable as we once thought it was.

STARTER (SLB): Keith Ellison
Buffalo didn't exactly want to enter 2009 with Ellison still listed as a starter, but unless something happens on the free agent front with Tinoisamoa, that appears to be exactly what's going to happen.  Again, Ellison is a "he is what he is" player - smart and more dependable than people realize, but lacking in the physical skill set to make him a true NFL starter.  He is, in a phrase, a career backup - and a pretty good one at that.

Pat Thomas
The athletic former Chief and Jaguar has starting experience in the league and a familiarity with Buffalo's defensive system.  For now, he is Ellison's chief competition for the starting SAM spot - and his chances of beating out the three-year veteran are more than fair.

John DiGiorgio
Playing place of an injured Posluszny in 2007, DiGiorgio quietly put together an impressive season in just his second year removed from being an undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State.  He's coming off of a knee injury, but with a new contract in hand, he has a chance to establish himself as a long-term reserve middle linebacker and special teams ace in Buffalo.

Alvin Bowen
Hey, look! Another Bills linebacker coming off of injury! The active and athletic Bowen missed his entire rookie season - including most of training camp - with a knee injury.  He's back with an outside shot to start at SAM, and he'll definitely be a big part of Bobby April's plans on special teams.

Nic Harris
The rookie fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma played safety in college, but will be moved to linebacker in the pros.  The team views him as more active, physical and a bigger playmaker than some of the players listed above Harris here, but he'll start out low on the totem pole and be yet another option for April in his loaded special teams deck.

This is a fairly deep (numbers-wise) position, folks - so we've got four more names plus some extra analysis for you after the jump.

Blake Costanzo
Remember Josh Stamer? Costanzo has the look of being the Bills' Stamer 2.0 - he'll rarely, if ever, see the field as a defender, but he's outstanding on any special teams unit he's a part of.  Don't be shocked if Blake finds a way to stick on the roster - he's been a pre-season cut each of the past two years, and yet here we are, still talking about the guy.

Jon Corto
He was a nice story last year, playing for the Bills after growing up in Orchard Park.  With imported depth and the possibility of a Tinoisamoa signing, however, Corto's a longshot to stick around.

Marcus Buggs
Say it with me: "Bills linebacker coming off of devastating injury." Yep - Buggs fits that profile, too.  He's being worked at MLB early in OTAs, and he's also got some practice squad eligibility left.  He's got a solid chance to stick around in that capacity.

Ashlee Palmer
The rookie UDFA is super athletic, but that's about where his allure ends for now.  He's got a lot to prove on the field; if he can pick up the defense relatively quickly, he could be stashed on the practice squad.

Contract situations: As it stands right now, the only player that's locked up beyond two more seasons is Mitchell, who enters the second year of a five-year deal he signed last spring.  Posluszny is a candidate for an early extension; don't be surprised if he gets something mid-season.  As for the rest of the players here, it looks like Buffalo is throwing a lot of talent at the wall and seeing what sticks.  Harris and Bowen have arguably the most upside, and their standing with the club is probably also strongest.

Bottom Line
I've said it before and I'll say it again - considering the Bills' sheer amount of needs entering free agency and the type of defense the team prefers to play, they addressed this situation about as intelligently as they could - with the return of Bowen, they've essentially added three players (Thomas and Harris included) that can at least push Ellison for his starting role - something Ellison did not have to endure in 2008.  If the team can find a way to bring in Tinoisamoa, that obviously changes the picture a bit and gives the team outstanding depth.

If there is a concern defensively (outside of the pass rush), linebacker is where that concern lies.  Can Posluszny improve to the point where he's considered the clear anchor of the defensive unit?  Can Mitchell play a bit more consistently while still delivering clutch plays here and there?  Can anyone unseat Ellison in the SAM role?  In this defense, linebacker is low in the pecking order in terms of importance - but that doesn't mean that mediocre-to-average play is acceptable.  This group needs to be more productive, starting at the top.

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