LINCOLN NE - OCTOBER 16: Running back Foswhitt Whittaker #28 of the Texas Longhorns is brought down by linebacker Lavonte David #4 and defensive tackle Jared Crick #94 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on October 16 2010 in Lincoln Nebraska. Texas Defeated Nebraska 20-13. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
The Buffalo Bills are entering the 2012 NFL Draft in a frame of mind that they haven't had in quite some time: they don't seem convinced that they need a starter with their first-round pick. Sure, they'd like to get one - who wouldn't? - but the way GM Buddy Nix and his associates have been speaking of late, they're clearly comfortable with their current personnel in several key areas.
Still, the team knows at which positions they need to provide reinforcements, and haven't been shy about talking about options they have in those areas this week.
Over the next few days, we're going to take one more look at the Bills' four most prominent "need" areas - including the current personnel that resides there, and what any draft pick might be expected to do at the position should they become the newest member of the Bills.
We started this exercise off with the wide receiver position. Tomorrow we'll go over cornerback, and finish Wednesday with left tackle.
LINEBACKER: With the team transitioning to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, the Bills will be changing some things up at this position. The team's best linebacker, Nick Barnett, will be moving to the outside, and several players now have new roles or positional responsibilities. Two of those players were re-signed with specific roles in mind.
Players with defined roles: Barnett will be the weak-side linebacker in base alignments, where he'll have the freedom to flow to the football away from blockers. He also has the inside track at playing the middle linebacker role in nickel packages, where he provides value as a two-way run and pass defender in that role. From there, the Bills have a few niche roles set up: Kelvin Sheppard, a third-round draft pick a year ago, will be the middle linebacker in base sets, but likely will come off the field in sub packages. Ditto for veteran Kirk Morrison, whose re-signing gives him the early leg up in the race to play the strong-side position. Bryan Scott - another veteran re-signing this off-season - won't play much in base sets as he moves full-time to outside linebacker, but will be an asset in coverage in nickel packages.
If training camp were to start today: You'd see exactly what was outlined above. Barnett, Sheppard and Morrison would be on the field in the base defense, and Barnett and Scott would be the linebackers in nickel packages.
The bigger picture: You may notice that among the four linebackers with defined roles on the team, only one of them - Barnett - is a true three-down player, able to stay on the field no matter the down and distance situation. It's possible that the team could have confidence in Sheppard's ability in that area, but that didn't stop them from taking him off the field in favor of Scott as a rookie. It's also possible that the team sees that ability in Morrison, who did not play much in 2011. It's also important to note that of these four players, all but Sheppard are at least 30 years old (Barnett will be 31 in May, Morrison turned 30 in February and Scott turned 31 not ten days ago). Add in Barnett's injury history - he missed 19 games between 2008 and 2010 - and there is some cause for concern about the long-term aspect of the group.
How that picture could change: GM Buddy Nix has stated plainly that depth will be addressed one way or another, but the only significant way that the picture would change as it pertains to the 2012 season would be if the team found another three-down contributor capable of starting right away. Otherwise, any new player would likely be slotted for a niche role, and they'd face an uphill battle for playing time in any of the three cases.
Round 1 possibilities: In recent days, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly - a player that many experts consider the cleanest prospect available in the 2012 NFL Draft - has seen a boost in popularity amongst Bills fans. That jump is due in large part to folks like Mike Mayock and Greg Cosell, who have heaped lavish praise on Kuechly's abilities in coverage while talking up his athleticism. If what these men and others in their field are saying about Kuechly is true, he certainly has the vibe of the type of three-down instant contributor that would drastically alter - and potentially drastically improve - the Bills' linebacking corps.
Other intriguing prospects: Beyond Kuechly, there are some intriguing prospects, but none that could step into the lineup and immediately become a three-down player. Lavonte David (Nebraska), Zach Brown (North Carolina) and Sean Spence (Miami) all have the type of athleticism required of a three-down player, with David perhaps the closest to being NFL-ready. On the flip side, Audie Cole (North Carolina State), Keenan Robinson (Texas) and Tank Carder (TCU) are noteworthy amongst a slew of players that could come in and compete with some of Buffalo's younger incumbents for Morrison's strong-side role.
Five questions for you: These are some relevant questions, in our opinion, to be answering and dissecting insofar as the linebacker position goes.
- Is Buffalo's "niched" approach to a linebacking corps - that is, players with package-specific roles - acceptable in a pass-first NFL? Or should they focus on finding every-down defenders that need only come off the field for oxygen?
- How comfortable are you with the idea that Barnett - nearly 31 and with a history of injury - is the team's only true three-down linebacker?
- How comfortable are you with the idea that Sheppard, who only had a significant two-down role for part of his rookie season, is essentially being handed the starting middle linebacker job?
- How fair is it to place the burden of expectation on any linebacker, let alone Buffalo's current (or soon-to-be new-look) group of linebackers, to consistently cover the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez?
- Who among the Bills' depth linebackers - i.e. Arthur Moats, Chris White and Scott McKillop - would you feel comfortable with stepping into a prominent role in the event of injury to one of the Bills' niche players, or even Barnett?