During the Buffalo Bills' glory years of the early 1990s, the team had elite linebackers. Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, Shane Conlan and Carlton Bailey roamed the field during the team's Super Bowl years. When the Bills were making their only legitimate playoff push in a 13-year drought - that being the 2004 season, when the team finished 9-7 - London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes spearheaded one of the league's best defenses.
Look at this year's Super Bowl XLVII participants: Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens is one of the best middle linebackers in the history of the sport, while the San Francisco 49ers boast easily the best duo of inside linebackers in the NFL in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (not to mention Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, too). Great linebacker play is critical to success in today's NFL, even as offenses get spread-happy and take 'backers off of the field.
Right now - and for the past several seasons, actually - the Bills have bad linebacker play. Nick Barnett is the only every-down capable player of the lot, and he's coming off of a year of decline. There are a couple of young prospects worth keeping an eye on, but neither has proven that they can anchor a defense. This, folks, is a major problem area for an organization that will be using more 3-4 looks (and has two linebackers coaches on the payroll) under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
- Age: 31 (32 in May 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $3.5 million in base salary in 2013.
Barnett was excellent in 2011, when he recorded 130 tackles, three sacks and an interception in what many considered a Pro Bowl-worthy campaign. His numbers were not that far off in 2012, when he moved to a weak-side linebacker role (112 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles), but Barnett was not the same at-times-dynamic playmaker that he was in 2011.
And while he's still capable of playing on coverage downs and is relatively strong against the run, the question for the Bills isn't whether or not Barnett can still play - he absolutely can - but rather how long they can reliably count on him to be a three-down player. They may not have a choice in 2012; three-down linebackers don't exactly grow on trees. But over the long haul, the Bills need to find a quality replacement for Barnett at the top of the linebacker depth chart.
Until then, Barnett is an experienced, versatile defender that can still get it done against most defensive looks. For now, he is clearly Buffalo's best and most important linebacker. He needs help - and more importantly, the team needs his heir apparent.
- Age: 31 (32 in May 2013)
- Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
As the Bills' designated pass-down linebacker, he was on the field more than any other linebacker other than Barnett, playing just under 55 percent of the team's snaps. On the surface, his numbers look good: he had 67 tackles, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown in the regular season finale. The team can absolutely do a lot worse in a coverage linebacker; he has a knack for finding the ball in key spots.
The problem with Scott is that at just 219 pounds, he's such an obvious liability against the run that teams often ran at will against the Bills' nickel defense. This problem came to a head in Week 4, when New England racked up 247 rushing yards predominantly against Buffalo's pass defense. Scott is probably the best of the Bills' "specialist" linebackers - i.e. the ones that are not part of both the base defense and most sub-packages - but how many of those types of linebackers does a team need? It will be interesting to see whether or not the Bills' new coaching staff places enough value on what Scott does well to re-sign him this off-season.
- Age: 25
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $614,000 in base salary in 2013.
Sheppard, a third-round draft pick in 2011 out of LSU, was given a starting role as a rookie that season, then was handed the starting middle linebacker job in Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 defense last summer. He finished the season with 80 tackles and two sacks, which are actually solid statistical figures considering he only played 46 percent of defensive snaps over 16 healthy weeks.
Buffalo's previous coaching staff did not trust Sheppard with three-down responsibilities, taking him off the field in their nickel defense in favor of Scott. It's tough to argue with that logic; it's evident that Sheppard is not great in coverage, and the Bills' new coaching staff will likely end up agreeing with that sentiment. Right now, Sheppard is a run-down middle linebacker; those types of players are not necessarily difficult to find, and Sheppard has not been a major play-making factor for the team despite his third-round pedigree. Sheppard clearly belongs in the league, but questions about his upside over the long haul are very much warranted.
- Age: 23 (24 in September 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.
Last year's fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State, the book on Bradham entering the NFL was that he's an outstanding athlete and a big hitter that's rough around the edges. That's basically what we saw in Bradham as a rookie, with the following addition: he looked very good at the end of the season as a starter.
Bradham has shown that he has the athletic ability to perhaps one day be an every-down linebacker; he was good in coverage in college, and has the feet to stay with backs and tight ends in the short area. Anyone that saw him play special teams knows that he can lay the lumber (a simple YouTube search will prove this, as well). There is serious upside with Bradham; he's not "there" yet - he only played 36 percent of snaps last season as a two-down defender - but his is a name to watch moving forward. He'll be given a shot at earning a starting job next summer, in all likelihood, and it's pretty safe to assume that he'll have one, even if significant personnel changes are made at the position.
- Age: 24 (25 in March 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $1.323 million in base salary in 2013.
Left for dead (again) when the team was moving to a 4-3 defense last summer, Moats was the surprise of training camp, overtaking veterans ahead of him on the depth chart for the starting strong-side linebacker role at the start of the 2012 season. That little experiment did not last, however, as Moats was a two-down defender that was replaced in the starting lineup by Week 5 by Bradham. Moats has bounced between positions as the Bills have played defensive scheme musical chairs over the last three seasons; he still has some rush ability and is a good special teams player, but it's hard to project his chances of being on the team in 2013 without knowing where he'll be playing in Pettine's scheme.
- Age: 24
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $555,000 in base salary in 2013.
Buffalo's most-used special teams player (White led all Bills players in total special teams reps last season despite missing one game due to injury) has also been a defensive non-factor in his first two pro seasons, the first of which ended with a spot on IR. A productive linebacker in the SEC coming into the 2011 NFL Draft, White does not appear to be in the team's long-term plans defensively, but he's proven his worth as a core special teams player nonetheless.
- Age: 30 (31 in February 2013)
- Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
Morrison, an eight-year veteran (going into his ninth season) formerly of Oakland and Jacksonville, spent the vast majority of the 2012 season on the inactive list before getting released late in the season. He was ultimately re-signed for the final two games, seeing only special teams work. BuffaloBills.com does not list Morrison as a free agent, so it's not crystal clear that his contract is set to expire in March; he was originally under contract for 2013 before his release last season. Either way, it's tough to envision Buffalo's brain trust having Morrison in its plans moving forward.
- Age: 23 (24 in February 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.
The son of the former Pittsburgh Steelers great by the same name, Lloyd was signed to the practice squad during the 2012 season, then added to the active roster late in the season and saw some special teams duty. The 6'1", 247-pound Connecticut product played against Marrone's Syracuse teams, and will now be competing for a roster spot under Marrone this summer.
- Age: 24
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.
A third-year player out of Notre Dame, Smith was a late-season addition to the team's practice squad. He was signed to a reserve/future contract in January, and will therefore likely be on the field competing when training camp begins.
Free agency outlook: Morrison is likely gone, and the odds seem higher than not that Scott will join him in looking for work elsewhere - though that could change, given that coverage players of Scott's build are not necessarily easy to come by. The Bills could look to sign a veteran linebacker familiar with Pettine's system if one becomes available (Bart Scott is not out of the realm of possibility, as nauseating as that idea may be to some), but they're unlikely to find any three-down players on the open market. Those players get contract extensions, not walking papers.
2013 NFL Draft outlook: If the Bills can't find a quarterback they like with the No. 8 pick and are forced to draft someone there, they could do a lot worse than picking a three-down capable linebacker if they see one. Many consider Manti Te'o of Notre Dame capable of filling that role. Alec Ogletree of Georgia and Arthur Brown of Kansas State are two more excellent, productive athletes with great range that profile as that type of linebacker at the pro level. This is the type of linebacker prospect that the Bills desperately need; right now, they've got a group of specialists, in essence.
Discussion topics: We've got to questions for y'all to ponder in the ensuing discussion.
- Did you see enough from Bradham in the last half of the season to comfortably project him as a starter for Pettine?
- Entering year three, how have your expectations shifted for Sheppard, the former third-round pick?