One of the biggest problems encountered when an NFL team makes radical changes schematically is fitting incumbent personnel into new roles. These changes typically lead to a massive personnel overhaul, but in many cases, that doesn't happen immediately. Such is the case with the Buffalo Bills, who are busy preparing several defenders for new roles in George Edwards' 3-4 defensive alignment.
Fans may question how players like Kyle Williams,and others transition into the new alignment, but at the moment, we aren't wondering which position they'll be playing. Williams will get reps mostly at nose tackle, while Kelsay will get a shot at winning the left outside linebacker job. Things are murkier at inside linebacker, where projected starters Paul Posluszny and Andra Davis aren't necessarily every-down defenders, and veteran depth options are surprisingly abundant.
The number of Bills players that are guaranteed roster spots isn't large, and linebackers Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor are not among that elite group. If our projected depth chart remains true throughout the pre-season, both will be reserves that Edwards will likely rotate into the lineup in some fashion. Mitchell has been taking reps at inside linebacker, while Torbor, who played inside at Miami, has been getting work at outside linebacker.
Buffalo is so desperate for impact linebackers that the team would do well to play to each players' strengths and find roles for Mitchell and Torbor, even if neither is a starter in name.
I've spoken at length about my worries regarding Buffalo's pass rush, where Aaron Maybin and his zero career sacks spearhead a ridiculously unproven unit. You'll hear a lot more about it throughout training camp and the pre-season, too - and not just from me. Buffalo's young (or in the case of Kelsay, out-of-place) pass rushers are expected to struggle early in the season, and possibly for longer. It is therefore imperative that Edwards find a way to generate pressure from other sources until his pass rushers get more comfortable.
Chan Gailey has spoken several times this off-season about his desire to fit his schemes to his players, which is why Edwards was such a desirable defensive coordinator candidate to him - he has experience in both the 4-3 and the 3-4. Most believe that Edwards will employ a 3-4 alignment similar to the one Bill Parcells brought with him to Miami, which features stay-at-home outside linebackers that rush the passer (as opposed to a gap-exploiting, blitz-happy 3-4 like Rex Ryan's).
But Edwards might not be able to pull off that traditional look - at least not right away. There's a difference between "pass rusher" and "blitzer" that is critical to understanding this - blitzers make plays based on athletic ability, instinct and, most of all, good scheming, while pass rushers have the same athletic abilities and instincts, but must rely on a repertoire of pass-rushing moves to defeat tackles and make plays. There's a great deal of importance placed on outside linebacker play in a traditional 3-4, and Buffalo doesn't have a polished pass rusher on the roster (Aaron Schobel doesn't count).
That's why it'll be important for Edwards to find early roles for both Mitchell and Torbor, even if they're not starters - this team is going to be very desperate for any sort of help generating pressure on quarterbacks, barring bizarre, irrationally quick development from a guy like Maybin or Danny Batten.
Mitchell's strength is playing downhill at the line of scrimmage; he's an instinctive player in that area, and has enough burst to be effective as a blitzer. Indeed, he proved his usefulness as a pass rusher in 2007 (with the Giants) and 2008 (with the Bills), picking up 7.5 sacks in those two seasons despite playing in 4-3 schemes both years. Mitchell does not have good range or top-end speed, however, so playing him outside would be a risk, as good offenses would expose that lack of range in coverage. Mitchell is also far better as a blitzer than as a natural pass rusher, so Edwards would be wise to use Mitchell in a nickel linebacker role at inside linebacker; Kawika's blitzing abilities in that department would help Edwards to disguise some of his rush looks, and Mitchell wouldn't have as much field to cover should he be asked to drop into coverage.
Torbor's skill set is different. He's a far more fluid, explosive athlete than Mitchell is, as Torbor was an undersized defensive end during his college days at Auburn. He does not excel near the line of scrimmage, as he struggles to shed blocks and does not fare well at the point of attack. Torbor has far better range than Mitchell does, and combined with his experience as an end, that's why he's getting reps at OLB, and Mitchell isn't. It's been several years since Torbor was asked to show off pass-rushing moves, but he's got enough in the tank to make a play or two here and there as a speed rusher. He'd also be a fine nickel-down defender in place of Kelsay, who offers less in coverage than he does as a pass rusher.
Mitchell has a better shot at making an impact on the pass rush than does Torbor, but both will be key contributors for this team in 2010. Versatility is a must with this defense, but they don't have any one linebacker that can do it all; instead, they'll stack players with different skill sets and use a heavy rotation. But given the state of the outside linebacker position, Mitchell, in particular, needs to be wrinkled into Edwards' pressure packages to start the season.