State Of The Buffalo Bills Roster: Linebacker

Buffalo Rumblings is in the process of breaking down the Buffalo Bills' roster position by position. Installments you may have missed: QB, RB, WR, TE, OT, G/C, CB, S, ST.

The Buffalo Bills were not much better defensively in 2011 than they'd been in recent seasons, which is why the team has made a switch at defensive coordinator. The positional group at which the team did take some positive steps forward, however, was linebacker.

Because we're still not clear on what defensive scheme the Bills will be running as their base system next season under Dave Wannstedt, we're going to begin breaking down the team's front seven personnel in as basic a way as possible: we'll start with linebackers, then cover pass rushers and defensive linemen. Our look at the team's linebackers is after the jump.

NICK BARNETT
Age:
30 (31 in May 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2014. Will make $6.5M in base salary, $500K in bonuses and $1.5M guaranteed over final two years of deal.

As one of only three true every-down front seven defenders the Bills employ right now (and the only linebacker), Barnett's value to the team is astronomical. A health risk, Barnett managed to stay healthy for 16 games and had a good season, recording 130 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and a touchdown. He'll return in 2012 as one of the team's most important players as they look to end a league-high playoff drought.

KELVIN SHEPPARD
Age:
24
Contract: UFA in 2015. Entering the second year of a four-year, $3M rookie contract.

Sheppard started the final nine games of his rookie season and emerged as a fairly reliable run defender by year's end. He still has a ways to go to become a complete player, and is very much a coverage liability, even though he cut down on his mental errors as the year progressed. He is already a good run-down linebacker; if he comes something more than that and can play most downs, consider it a bonus for this former third-round pick.

BRYAN SCOTT
Age:
30 (31 in April 2012)
Contract: UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

Though technically a safety, we're listing Scott in this breakdown because his role is effectively that of a nickel linebacker - he played roughly half of the team's sets as a short-area coverage man in nickel looks, where he lined up next to Barnett (replacing Sheppard). He had a solid season in that role and is still a reliable defender, but with a young safety (Da'Norris Searcy) capable of taking this role over, it's not imperative that the team re-sign Scott.

KIRK MORRISON
Age:
29 (30 in February 2012)
Contract: UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

A late free agent signing this summer, Morrison was added to the roster as veteran insurance to two, at the time, veteran starters (Barnett and Andra Davis). Sheppard eventually leap-frogged Morrison into the starting lineup, as planned, and Morrison barely played. Still a capable defender, it's likely that Morrison will look for a more prominent role in free agency, though the Bills seem interested in bringing him back.

ANDRA DAVIS
Age:
33 (34 in December 2012)
Contract: UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

Davis began his second year in Buffalo as a starter, but was quickly phased out of the defense and replaced by Sheppard. At this point in his career, his value to a team lies in his knowledge of defenses and his leadership qualities. It's unlikely the team will bring him back unless he's willing to work on the cheap as a reserve and as a continuing mentor for Sheppard.

CHRIS WHITE
Age:
23
Contract: UFA in 2015. Entering the second year of a four-year, $2.16M rookie contract.

Last year's sixth-round pick out of Mississippi State, White isn't really a factor in defensive discussions, but was having a stellar year as a coverage man on special teams before landing on IR. He'll be back as a core specialist and reserve linebacker in 2012.

REGGIE TORBOR
Age:
31
Contract: UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

2010's veteran insurance signing at linebacker, Torbor missed the entire 2011 season with an injury. An impending free agent, it's tough to get a read on the team's interest in re-signing him; in the less-likely-than-the-alternative event that he's retained, he'd be nothing more than a little-used reserve and a specialist. Torbor may not even be interested in that role.

SCOTT McKILLOP
Age:
25 (26 in March 2012)
Contract: Under contract for 2012 after signing a reserve/future deal in January.

McKillop, who played collegiately for Wannstedt at Pittsburgh, was signed just in January to get a look next summer. At best, he'll be competition for White's reserve and specialist role. He has a chance to stick in that capacity, perhaps even alongside White.

POSITIONAL OUTLOOK: In Barnett and Sheppard, the Bills have stability, a diversity of skill, and some upside at the top of their linebacker depth chart. From there, things are incredibly hard to discern. There are four veteran unrestricted free agents (Scott, Morrison, Torbor and Davis) and two scrappy youngsters that aren't ready to play (White and McKillop). Scott has a defined role, but may be replaceable, while Morrison has value as a depth player, but doesn't play much otherwise and may be looking for more playing time. The team seems interested in maintaining the veteran depth status quo at the position, and they're always on the lookout for young linebackers, particularly in the later rounds. So...

FREE AGENCY: Scott will be the first player to monitor here; if the team doesn't (or can't) re-sign him, expect Searcy to take his role, and the team's need for veteran linebacker depth will increase. That might make Morrison a more attractive option, should he even be interested in returning. Torbor and Davis are also options, but probably not particularly desirable ones. If all four of those guys depart, look for the Bills to try to find a veteran guy that can back up both Barnett and Sheppard.

2012 NFL DRAFT: In two years, the Bills have used three sixth-round picks on linebackers (albeit two that were supposed to end up being pass rushers). That's a good area of the draft to find depth players and specialists, and if the team wants more of those, that's where Buddy Nix will likely look at them.

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