Transitioning from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 defense is one of the most difficult adjustments to make at the NFL level. Different types of players are needed just about across the board in the front seven; the responsibilities of defensive linemen, outside linebackers and inside linebackers differ greatly from scheme to scheme.
The Buffalo Bills are in the midst of this exact transition. Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell brought a zone-based 4-3 emphasizing lighter, quicker players in the front seven to Buffalo in 2006, and many of those lighter, quicker players are now looking at rather massive responsibility shifts. The Bills spent their off-season attempting to get bigger along the defensive line, but those efforts did not allow for much change at outside linebacker.
After the jump, we'll take a look at the six players currently employed by the Bills that the team plans to use at outside linebacker. These are very talented players across the board, but that doesn't mean that this isn't a position riddled with question marks across the board, either. Buffalo may not enter the 2010 regular season with two set starters at this position, and that's cause for concern.
Jeff Winters, one of our staff writers here at Rumblings, does a nice job explaining the responsibilities of the two outside linebacker positions in this post. The short version is as follows: the defense will feature a left outside 'backer (LOLB) and a right outside 'backer (ROLB). Both positions will be asked to rush the passer most of the time, and both positions will be asked to cover backs and tight ends and set the edge against the run as well. The biggest point of differentiation between the two is that the LOLB traditionally lines up on the strong side of the offensive formation, meaning that he'll need to both deal with more blockers (tight end and/or fullback) and be able to match up with those players in coverage. The ROLB will spend a bit more time one-on-one and in open space.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
94 - Aaron Schobel. Currently considering retirement, Schobel - who will turn 33 years old on September 1 - represents the breaking point between "this position is just deep enough to be interesting" and "this position is going to be a hot mess." Quite easily the team's best pass rusher, Schobel would line up primarily at ROLB should he decide to play to emphasize that skill set. He is capable of playing either OLB position, but given his career status, he is much better suited to rushing the passer as frequently as possible, as opposed to playing on the tight end side. He is the only player on this list that would be an every-down player; that is, he's the only player that would come off the field only when in need of a break.
90 - Chris Kelsay. Of all Bills defenders in the front seven, Kelsay might be the poorest fit for the 3-4. Athletically, he's ideally suited to play the position he's played his entire career - left defensive end in a 4-3 alignment. He does not possess the quickness or fluidity in space to adequately cover tight ends and backs on a consistent basis. What Kelsay does bring to the table, however, is the capability to defend the run physically; no one else on this list comes close to Kelsay in that regard. Kelsay's best fit in this defense is as a run-defending LOLB that would come off the field on obvious passing situations.
58 - Aaron Maybin. The biggest criticism facing Maybin as a rookie was his slight frame and inability to hold up well at the point of attack. The latter point will still be an issue for Maybin in this defense, but the frame won't - he is ideally built to play OLB in a 3-4, possessing the length and quickness to eventually be a devastating force in this scheme. Maybin's forte is rushing the passer, and though he gives great effort against the run, he's much better suited to playing ROLB, where he won't have to deal with multiple blockers as frequently. Maybin has enough straight-line speed, however, to eventually match up with tight ends, as well. He'll need a lot of coaching to become an elite all-around OLB prospect, but for now, he's got a shot to make a mark as a pass rushing specialist.
93 - Chris Ellis. I'm not sure what to make of Ellis, as he's played so sparingly in his first two NFL seasons that it's hard to make out exactly what he is and isn't good at. Like Kelsay, I believe Ellis' best professional position fit is as a 4-3 left end; in this particular scheme, I think his best chance of sticking will be at LOLB. He is the biggest player on this list at 261 pounds, and that extra bulk should help him on the strong side of the offensive alignment. He never struck me as a great point-of-attack player at Virginia Tech, however, and he might get a look at a pass-rusher at ROLB, too.
57 - Danny Batten. I'm bullish on Batten, mainly because he's a scrappy player and the best pure athlete on this list. He's explosive off the snap, has solid straight-line speed, isn't afraid to mix it up at all, and could theoretically help the Bills on both sides of the alignment. But that's all down-the-line talk; Batten must first adjust to making the leap from South Dakota State to NFL football. He'll be a specialist to start, but long-term, he has a real chance to emerge as a starter at either ROLB or LOLB in this scheme.
59 - Antonio Coleman. Arguably the most recognizable undrafted free agent name brought in by the Bills this year, Coleman was a productive player in the SEC that has a shot at making the back end of this roster. A high-effort player, I'm not completely sold that Coleman is explosive enough as a pass rusher to play outside in this scheme. I actually like him better as an inside linebacker; in fact, if the Bills were to swap Coleman inside and let sixth-round pick try his hand on the edge, I'd be much more comfortable with the Bills' linebacker depth. Coleman can run and works very hard, and he's clearly a best-fit at ROLB in this scheme - his potential in coverage is minimal.
Schobel's got four years and $29.53 million remaining on his mega-deal. Kelsay will be a free agent after this season; he's already been paid a $500,000 roster bonus, and will make $3.7 million this season. Maybin's got four years remaining on his rookie deal; that deal averages about $3.5 million per season, and he'll also have access to about $7.4 million in incentives. Ellis is under contract for two more years at just over $1 million in total. Batten, a sixth-round rookie, will probably get a four-year deal. Coleman, an undrafted rookie free agent, has signed a multi-year deal, most likely for three years (but we aren't confirming that).
I've got about as much of an idea as to whether or not Schobel will play as Buffalo's coaching staff does, so rather than make a prediction regarding his playing status, I'll simply outline two scenarios below.
If Schobel plays: Schobel lines up at ROLB. Kelsay gets early-down reps at LOLB, and is spelled by Maybin for coverage and pass-rushing downs. The other three players might not see much playing time at all.
If Schobel retires: Maybin becomes the full-time starter at ROLB; cross your fingers he's ready for that responsibility. Kelsay is the starter at LOLB, and Batten becomes the swing rotational player between both positions. Ellis and Coleman become much more viable options for the final roster.
I don't think Schobel is going to play, though I'd be happy to be wrong about that one. If I am, however, correct, then I think that all five of the names listed below Schobel on the OLB depth chart stand an excellent shot of making the team. There are simply too many question marks personnel-wise after Schobel, so the Bills will need to be highly specialized in the event he's not with the team. They'll keep all five players and possibly use four or all five of them in different sub-package looks, with Maybin, Batten and Coleman the pass-rush candidates, and Kelsay and Ellis the early favorites for run-defending duties. If Schobel doesn't play, this position will very much be a work in progress, much like the rest of the roster. If Schobel decides to give it one more go, however, this positional mix becomes one of the most intriguing units on the roster.
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