With Buffalo Bills transitioning to the 3-4 defense, GM Buddy Nix spent a great deal of time bulking up his front seven this off-season. DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis were added via free agency, while NT Torell Troup and DE Alex Carrington were both selected before the end of Round 3 in the NFL Draft.
One position that went largely untouched, at least initially, was the outside linebacker position. The first significant change at that position came in the form of sixth-round pick Danny Batten. The Bills enter the 2010 pre-season with veteran stalwart Aaron Schobel penciled in at the right outside linebacker spot, and veterans Chris Kelsay and Chris Ellis in the mix with second-year man Aaron Maybin on the opposite side.
But as you're well aware, Schobel is still mulling retirement. Kelsay isn't a great fit for the 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker, and at best will be a situational player. The jury is still very much out on both Ellis and Maybin, who both still have solid upside (and it's much more than "solid" in Maybin's case) but have very little to show for their NFL efforts to date. That could open the door for the rookie Batten to have a surprisingly effective rookie season.
It's not uncommon for lower-round draft picks to come in and be effective as rookie pass rushers, particularly in the 3-4 defense. As one example, just last year, Green Bay seventh-round pick Brad Jones had an effective rookie season as a situational pass-rusher and spot starter, accumulating 33 tackles and four sacks seemingly out of nowhere. All Jones needed was an opportunity; Batten could be in for a similar opportunity, if not an even bigger role depending on what happens with Schobel.
Batten certainly has the physical talent to succeed in this league. Measuring in at 6'3" and 246 pounds, Batten put up impressive workout numbers at his March 23 pro day, registering 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash, putting up 30 reps of 225 pounds, sufficient explosion numbers (32.5-inch vertical jump, 10'2" broad jump), and most importantly, solid quickness numbers (1.7-second 10-yard dash, 4.32-second 20-yard shuttle). Add in Batten's excellent senior production (86 tackles, nine sacks, 18 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery) despite the attention opponents paid to him, it's somewhat surprising Batten fell as far as he did, even coming out of South Dakota State. Batten Details
That's not to say Batten is some wondrous athletic find; expectations should be somewhat tempered. He's a very good athlete with solid upside, but he's not a DeMarcus Ware-in-waiting. The most important factor to keep in mind regarding Batten is that he's the closest thing to a pure 3-4 OLB that this Bills team has. Batten played both linebacker and end in college, and has dropped back into coverage on numerous occasions. He's instinctual in that department. Meanwhile, guys like Schobel, Maybin, Kelsay, Ellis and even undrafted rookie free agent Antonio Coleman have very little experience in that department, a fact opposing offensive coordinators will look to exploit in 2010. Right out of the gate, Batten is probably the best cover OLB on the roster. He's certainly one of the better natural pass rushers, though how those skills transition to the NFL level remains to be seen.
Depending on what happens with Schobel, Batten may not get an opportunity to play much in 2010. If Schobel decides to call it quits, however, things get interesting. Maybin is clearly the highest-upside OLB on the roster, so if Schobel retires, Maybin's the guy that is likely to see the most playing time. No one's sure if Kelsay will even make the final roster, though obviously his chances skyrocket if Schobel's out of the picture. Ellis is a complete enigma, particularly as he transitions to OLB. Don't be surprised if it's the rookie Batten that sneaks into the lineup should Schobel's retirement open up a playing time opportunity.
Bills veterans are already noticing the sixth-rounder on the practice field, even with just a week of OTAs under their belts. Veteran cornerback Drayton Florence tweeted the following after last Thursday's OTA practice closed the first week of sessions:
Great first week at practice saw alot of good things Levi looks good to me and I can tell u now #57 is a good player 4got his name thou #57
If that aforementioned opportunity presents itself, Florence - as well as the rest of his teammates and Bills fans at large - won't be forgetting Batten's name for long.