I've been asked several times over the past few days for my personal assessment on the Buffalo Bills' outside linebacker position now that Shawne Merriman is on Injured Reserve. In short, my answer hasn't changed post-Merriman; I've long viewed Buffalo's personnel at the position as "useful" - even before Merriman succumbed to injury.
The NFL is full of useful players, and I consider all four of Buffalo's remaining outside linebackers - Chris Kelsay, Arthur Moats, Danny Batten and Antonio Coleman - to be useful. They are players that teams can comfortably use on game days.
Kelsay now plays the role of heady veteran; he's never been a dominant player, but has played well when healthy this season. He's a good run defender that can occasionally put pressure on a quarterback. That's not a bad thing to have at the position at all. Moats is a young player disadvantaged by the team's unwillingness to keep him at one position; he's shown flashes as a pass rusher for two years now, but has a long way to go in terms of consistency and especially defending the run.
Batten is a hustler, and is sufficiently inexperienced that it's not unreasonable to think he can become something more than he is right now: a wave player. Ditto for Coleman, who is back with the team after being a roster cut casualty in early September.
There's nothing inherently wrong with these four players individually, nor as a group in some ways. "Useful" is the best word to describe them collectively because they're all players that fit the Buffalo mold - smart, tough and hard-working - and they're all talented guys capable of making plays on a professional football field.
Here's the problem, though: they don't make enough of them on their own. Useful almost always doesn't cut it at positions of critical importance on teams with playoff aspirations.
We can debate until we're blue in the face where the pass rush relates in importance to other critically important areas like quarterback and line play. No matter where it rates, it's crucially important, and the Bills are clearly lacking in this area - and as useful as these players are, they're not playing at a level where teams care to more than cursorily game plan for them. As a group, they're a collection of players that won't hurt you with what they bring to the table, but don't show enough of what it takes to really help you.
In today's NFL, it is imperative that a defense get pressure on a quarterback. The Bills have been doing that with decreasing effectiveness all season; they're currently dead last in the league with sacks, and as time has progressed their blitz packages have becoming increasingly ineffective. George Edwards spent his off week drawing up new pressure schemes, which speaks more to the state of the team's group of pass rushers than any opinion I can share with you.
The bottom line is this: the Bills have four useful outside linebackers, there is no reason to think that the group can't improve, and it's still by far the team's biggest problem defensively. At some point, GM Buddy Nix needs to realize it that useful is no longer going to cut it.