State of the Bills Roster: Rush Linebackers

They say that the lifeblood of the 3-4 defense is a gap-plugging nose tackle and athletic playmakers at the pass-rushing outside linebacker positions. Unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills, the team is lacking just as severely in the pass rusher department as they are in the nose tackle department.

Well, it's not that bad, I suppose. The Bills actually have solid options here, and if things fall right this off-season, will have two guys that can at least take the field as starters. But the pass rush has long been an issue in Buffalo, and the team's inability to find athletic young players at the position in the draft now has a negative effect on their transition to the new scheme.

After the jump, we'll talk about the four players currently on Buffalo's roster that fit the mold of a 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebacker. Unfortunately for the Bills, only two of those players are natural fits; the other two names on the list probably don't belong at all. Add this to the needs list, folks!

What the new regime might be looking for
In a word - "depth." The duo of Aaron Schobel and Aaron Maybin are capable of starting in this system; Maybin's already been penciled in, and Schobel will be inked in should he decide to forego his retirement for at least one season.

Other than that, the Bills will be looking for what every 3-4 team looks for - impact pass rushers with the athleticism to cover the flats and short areas of the field in the rare cases they aren't called on to rush. With more and more teams fielding the 3-4, those players are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and aside from the top two names on the list, the Bills have essentially no depth at the position.

Current personnel
Part of the problem in transitioning from the 4-3 to the 3-4 is finding a spot for your defensive linemen. In most cases, the majority of 4-3 linemen fit best as 3-4 defensive ends - often cases, even that's a stretch - and that's what we've got here in Buffalo, too. We've got two nose tackles, a ton of defensive end candidates, and just four pass-rushing outside linebacker prospects. Anyone want to hazard a guess why NT and OLB are considered the most important positions in this defensive scheme?

Aaron Schobel. Folks are constantly stating that Maybin benefits the most from the move to the 3-4; I couldn't disagree more. I love the idea of Schobel in this scheme. No, he's not a tremendous athlete, and given that fact along with his age, he'll be something of a liability, and certainly not a long-term solution at the position. But if Buffalo is smart - and, more importantly, if they're capable of finding some depth - Schobel will enter 2010 as a pure pass rusher. That's it. He'll just rush the quarterback. That's what he's best at, and he's proven that he can do it. If Schobel decides to return for one more season, I think his stat line stands to benefit from this change.
  Contract status: 4 years remaining. Owed $27.525M in base salaries. (Oof!)

Aaron Maybin. The oft-berated 2009 first-round pick is pretty well despised by this fan base after Maybin's zero-sack rookie season. Hope springs eternal, however, and the switch to the 3-4 definitely suits Maybin. He looked quite uncomfortable standing up a year ago in the rare moments it was required of him, so don't expect him to suddenly become DeMarcus Ware overnight, folks. But Maybin's strengths - acceleration and reach - are highlighted in this system. Expect rocky roads as Maybin continues to grow into his body and learns the nuances of a new system. Long-term, though, the outlook is good if Maybin can pick up the playbook quickly and George Edwards can get creative in how he uses Maybin.
  Contract status: 4 years remaining. Base salaries undisclosed. Deal: 5 years, $17.6M, $15M guaranteed.

Chris Ellis. He's entering his third year out of Virginia Tech, and his best chance at sticking on this roster is as an outside linebacker. He's too soft to play the 5-technique, and he has enough athleticism to get by at the OLB spot. But the fit is not a snug one, and Ellis has been completely anonymous in two years with the club. Don't hold your breath; I'm not sure his Bills career is set to continue.
  Contract status: 2 years remaining. Owed $1.025M in base salaries.

Jermaine McGhee. He's listed on the roster at the team's official site, and having seen him in training camp last year, he's definitely more the athletic type, so we're throwing his name here. He spent '09 rehabbing a severe knee injury. He'll have a hard time sticking even on the training camp roster, in all likelihood.
  Contract status: Your guess is as good as ours. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.

Who stays? Who goes?
Obviously, Maybin stays. Schobel stays, too, if he so chooses, and right now, I think it's fair to call those chances even. McGhee is pretty clearly a goner, and Ellis is no better a fit for this system than Chris Kelsay (who I'm sure you've noticed by now is conspicuously absent from this list - again, see our DE post, which will likely air Monday). Essentially, I'm saying that we've got two players at this position, and our need for depth here is fairly critical.

If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
Wow. There's so much at play here. Will Schobel return? Will Edwards be comfortable handing a starting spot to Maybin? I'll go on record as guessing that Schobel will return. I'll also go on record as guessing that Maybin will be a starter, though it'd be nice to see the team add a veteran pass rusher to compete for his spot. I wouldn't be averse to the team bringing in as many as three or four reserve options through various mediums to bolster the depth, because we're going to need a lot of it.

Names to keep an eye on
Buffalo can find a stop-gap nose tackle, some stop-gap defensive ends if they so choose, and even some of their offensive needs via free agency. Where they truly lack elite athletes is right here (as well as inside linebacker, which we'll obviously discuss in the near future). If any one specific position now becomes a much higher draft option, it's this one. There aren't any elite pass rushers available in this year's draft, but names like Sergio Kindle, Eric Norwood, Ricky Sapp and Jerry Hughes are considered solid prospects. Derrick Morgan, a player Buffalo's coaching staff should be very familiar with, should be a consideration as well, though he's not a snug fit in a 3-4.

Previous installments of the State of the Bills Roster series: QB, RB, WR, TE, OT, G/C, NT.
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