When new Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards announced that he'd be transitioning his new team from a zone-based 4-3 to a two-gap 3-4, we knew immediately that some incumbent players would be making position changes. The most radical of those changes takes place at outside linebacker, where the team will try to fit square pegs into round holes in many cases.
Edwards' schooling in the 3-4 comes from the Bill Parcells tree of coaching, which means that the Bills will be, in all likelihood, lining up traditionally. As that's the case, Buffalo will employ two slightly different versions of outside linebacker - one will play the weak side (of the offensive alignment), the other the strong side. Second-year pro Aaron Maybin, the team's most athletically gifted outside linebacker, will play the weak side, where he'll deal with fewer blockers and play a role that more readily emphasizes the pass rush.
Who, then, will line up opposite Maybin? That's an outstanding question, and one that does not yet have a clear answer. Buffalo currently employs six outside linebackers (seven, if you count the not-reporting-for-duty Aaron Schobel), and legitimate arguments can be made for any of those players to play the strong side from a starter's role.
Eliminating Two Contenders
That said, we're going to take the list of contenders from five down to three immediately. In his latest Fan Friday column, BuffaloBills.com's Chris Brown writes that veteran linebacker Reggie Torbor - who spent time with Coach Edwards in Miami - was brought in to complement Maybin on the weak side. Most of you realize that Maybin is highly unproven as a pass rusher, but he may never be a dominant run defender, either; Torbor could see early-down opportunities on the weak side initially as Maybin continues to grow into his new role.
Antonio Coleman is not going to be part of the strong-side discussions, either, simply because he does one thing well - rush the passer. As an undrafted rookie free agent, it's highly unlikely that the Bills will ask Coleman to do something he doesn't do well, namely take on blockers and try to make plays through the trash on the strong side. Coleman's best shot at cracking the roster is as the chief understudy - and a good understudy, at that - to Maybin's role.
With Torbor and Coleman out of the picture (and again, Torbor could very well see strong-side looks eventually, particularly on obvious passing downs), that leaves three contenders for the strong-side job: Chris Kelsay, Chris Ellis and rookie Danny Batten.
Kelsay is by far the most proven player at outside linebacker, which, yes, is rather terrifying, as he's never played outside linebacker. His best asset is his natural strength, as he's used to taking on blockers, particularly on the left side of the alignment. He's also the current Bills leader in career sacks at the position. Where Kelsay is a massive liability is in pass coverage, where his best bet of succeeding is dropping into coverage lanes and batting down a pass here or there.
Third-year pro Chris Ellis has been one of Buffalo's most anonymous players over the past two seasons as a former third-round pick, but he'll have a shot to earn a strong-side gig. He's a better natural athlete than Kelsay, but is not as naturally strong - and he'll likely still be something of a liability in coverage. We haven't seen much of Ellis as a 4-3 end, let alone as a 3-4 outside linebacker, so it remains to be seen exactly what his skill set is at the position. He certainly has the size to hold up on the strong side, so we're slotting him there for the time being.
Batten, a sixth-round pick out of
San Diego South Dakota State, is the most athletic of this group by a long shot, but he's not a stout run defender, and thus would take on more of a specialist's role on the strong side. He might actually be the best player in coverage at OLB, aside from Torbor, which combined with his speed could make him a nice blitz/coverage combination on passing downs. He's a long way from being an every-down defender in this scheme, but could carve himself a role early in his NFL career.
Who Wins The Job?
This job is Kelsay's to lose. He'll be the most consistent of the bunch, the best against the run, and the Bills can use Torbor or Batten in passing situations to mask Kelsay's lack of coverage (and blitzing, for that matter) skills. Ellis needs to be concerned with making the team first and foremost, but it's not entirely out of question that a monstrous pre-season could land him a starting job. We don't view that as likely.
In Maybin, Torbor, Kelsay and Batten, the Bills have four players that can contribute in different ways immediately, but clearly, there are no standouts. Unless the younger guys make dramatic improvements, the outside linebacker group - not just the strong-side contenders - looks like they're entering a spit and baling wire situation in 2010.