The Buffalo Bills are transitioning to the 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator George Edwards. That transition was the focal point of Buffalo's off-season, as they spent a great deal of time addressing their defensive front seven. DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis were added via free agency, and four more draft picks - NT Torell Troup, DE Alex Carrington, ILB Arthur Moats and OLB Danny Batten - further fortify the team's new alignment.
Buffalo now enters the 2010 pre-season with some difficult decision to make at linebacker, and the situation is compounded by Aaron Schobel's retirement indecision. Counting Schobel, the Bills currently employ 14 linebackers, and as many as six of those players could be cut prior to the start of the regular season. Whether Schobel plays or not will impact the inside linebacker position for the Bills, if only from a numbers standpoint.
That fact aside, with three veteran players that fit the 3-4 scheme will, the Bills are unusually deep at this position for a team just making the move. Davis, Paul Posluszny and Kawika Mitchell give the Bills three legitimate starting options at ILB, and the presence of those players could make it very difficult for the rest of the players we profile after the jump to make the final roster.
As the Bills will obviously be lining up two players at inside linebacker in their base defense, there's some differentiation in responsibilities between the two positions. Our very own Jeff Winters wrote an excellent article explaining the differences not only between these two positions, but between the ILB responsibilities of this 3-4 defense as opposed to other 3-4 variations. Give that a read before continuing on here.
In short, there will be a Mike linebacker that will be asked to take on blockers, while his counterpart, the Will, will be asked to clean up the trash. The Mike linebacker's role is crucial, but as a result of the responsibility differences, the Will linebacker will look far more productive on the stat sheet. Keep in mind, also, that there is room for nickel linebackers to get playing time in this scheme; these nickel 'backers will excel in pass coverage.
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.
54 - Andra Davis. One of Buffalo's two critical defensive free agent signings, Davis will enter the season as the starter at the Mike position. Already the team's most physical linebacker, Davis will purely be a downhill player asked to take on blockers and play the less glamorous ILB spot. Davis' true value will lie in his experience with the defense; a year ago with Denver, Davis was largely credited as being an instrumental factor in the Broncos' quick transition from terrible 4-3 defense to respectable 3-4 defense. That factor, more than his statistical production, is why Davis is a Bill.
55 - Kawika Mitchell. Recovering from an injury that ended his 2009 season in Week 5, Mitchell is making starter's money, but has steep competition for playing time on the inside. Mitchell best profiles as a Will linebacker in this scheme, but as it stands right now, he does not have the inside track at that job. Mitchell is a smart player that will see playing time; it's just a question of where and when, as opposed to a question of why.
56 - Keith Ellison. Ellison is the toughest player to get a read on in this new 3-4 defense. This is a player that has his uses - he's a good specialist, is a smart, team-first player, and has been productive when called on. But Ellison is also vastly undersized for this particular position, has struggled to stay healthy, and profiles strictly as a sub-package player and specialist. Buffalo has a lot of those types on the depth chart here, so Ellison could end up anywhere from being a solid sub-package contributor and specialist to off the team completely.
51 - Paul Posluszny. There are a lot of young players on this roster that I'm bullish about - Steve Johnson, Shawn Nelson and Andy Levitre chief among them - and you can add Posluszny to the list, too. I liked Posluszny as a 4-3 middle linebacker, but that's not the position he was born to play. He was born to play a weak-side position in the 3-4. Posluszny has also had durability issues, missing chunks of two of his first three seasons, but he's also a tough customer. If he can stay healthy, I expect Posluszny to put up big numbers this season in the tackle department. He's also by far the closest thing to an every-down linebacker on the roster, and he'll be on the field for nickel situations as well.
50 - Nic Harris. Harris is in a similar situation to Ellison in that he only fits into this defensive scheme in a limited role. I realize he's gotten bigger while rehabilitating an injury, but no matter how big Harris gets, he's still a finesse player more comfortable in coverage than with taking on blockers. He was more athlete than anything coming into the league, and now he doesn't have a true fit in this defense. His best shot to stick will be as a specialist.
52 - Ryan Manalac. Manalac is something of an unknown; he's not very big, but he's tough at the point of attack, which means the Bills will probably try him out in Davis' position. That said, his climb to the final roster is a steep one.
53 - Arthur Moats. An outstanding collegian as a pass rusher, Moats is being moved to inside linebacker by Buffalo's coaching staff because he lacks the length of a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker. Moats is an explosive athlete capable of making big plays, but he'll be adjusting to a new position, so expectations should be tempered initially. He does, however, have significant upside, and will absolutely be a key player on special teams this season.
49 - Mike Wright. An undrafted free agent out of Utah, Wright will directly compete with Manalac for a reserve spot at the Mike position. Like Manalac, he's a longshot to make the final roster, but could sneak onto the practice squad for emergency purposes.
Davis signed a two-year, $4.4 million deal lacking in glamor, which he'll work under playing a position lacking glamor. Posluszny, meanwhile, is entering the final year of his rookie deal (he'll make $665K this year); if he can stay healthy this season, look for the Bills to sign him long-term. Mitchell has three years and $8.2 million remaining on the free agent deal he signed in 2008.
As for the lower depth players, Ellison will play the 2010 season on a one-year, $1.18 million tender offer, while Harris has three years remaining on his rookie deal as well. Moats is likely to get a four-year deal as a sixth-round pick, and Wright should get two or three years out of his undrafted free agent deal. Manalac's contract situation is unknown, and bordering on irrelevant.
Posluszny will be the starter at the Will spot, and assuming good health, will see the most field time of any linebacker on Buffalo's roster. That's a good thing. Davis will be a two-down run defender, and Mitchell will rotate in at various positions as well.
From there, it gets tricky. Ellison and Harris profile as nickel linebackers, and could have an impact in that role - if they make the team, that is. Moats profiles as a Will inside linebacker, and if there's an ILB on the roster that will moonlight as a pass rusher, it should be Moats, not Mitchell. Manalac and Wright profile best as understudies to Davis, and I'm guessing that one of them sticks with the team in some capacity, as the Bills do lack depth at the Mike spot.
Davis and Posluszny are obviously locks to make the team, and I'll add Mitchell to that list, too, even though he's kind of in no-man's land at the moment. That's where things get interesting. 3-4 teams typically try to keep between 8 and 10 linebackers - that's a combined outside and inside - with 9 being a comfortable number. That means that Aaron Schobel's retirement decision will impact how many inside linebackers the team keeps, as it will obviously impact the team's decision-making process at OLB.
Right now, I'm predicting that four OLBs are locks - Schobel, Kelsay, Maybin and Batten. Add in the three ILB locks, and there's room for one or perhaps two more linebackers on the roster. I'll project two, as I believe that Chan Gailey will want to keep numbers at the position to help stock up Bruce DeHaven's special teams units. This isn't even a decision, really; I'm giving those spots to Moats and Antonio Coleman (OLB).
So yes. I'm predicting that half of the players on this list - Ellison, Harris, Manalac and Wright - won't make the team. The team will probably stash Wright on the practice squad, as he's got Mike capabilities in this scheme. If Schobel retires, however, there's room for one of those players to slide onto the active roster - unless the team decides to keep Chris Ellis at OLB.