Ask any NFL expert about the state of the Bills' linebacking corps, and you'll inevitably hear some version of the following question: "How do they replace London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes?" It's true that the two veterans provided a level of leadership that is no longer apparent on the Bills' defense. They were both hard workers and fan favorites, and it's likely that their absence on the roster will have an impact for a while. But a close analysis of what the Bills expect from their linebackers and their current personnel says one thing: Buffalo's linebackers are looking good. Our first look is at the outside linebackers on Buffalo's roster.
The Tampa-2 defense (especially the version that Perry Fewell coordinates) asks some very unique things of its linebackers. The position is incredibly important to the success of this style of defense - just ask Takeo Spikes, whose run defense was so atrocious last year that it got one of the most popular Bills players traded for a holdout and a seventh-round draft pick.
Success in this defense is not about any one particular thing with Cover-2 linebackers. Speed is put at a premium - and the Bills have assembled a linebacking corps that can motor. Core strength, rather than size, is emphasized - which is why the team currently has three linebackers that weigh less than 230 pounds. Core strength allows the 'backers to better shed blocks and lay bigger hits - which is essential considering that the focus of the DTs is penetration, not occupying blockers. The Bills' linebackers are all strong, slight and speedy.
55-Angelo Crowell: Crow is now the veteran leader of our linebacking corps - and at the ripe old age of 25. He is big, fast and athletic. In short, he's the closest thing the Bills have to an every-down linebacker. You'll hear his name called early and often.
56-Keith Ellison: The man charged with "replacing" Takeo Spikes. Ellison was a pleasant surprise as a rookie, but of the players on the roster may be the least physically gifted. But he makes up for it with some of the most incredible football smarts seen around these parts in a while - it's not often a sixth-round pick learns a pretty complex defense in a month. He'll be steady, and we could use a few big plays from Keith as well.
27-Coy Wire: In one of the more interesting experiments of the off-season, Wire is being converted from safety to outside linebacker, where he played a lot last season. I expect Wire to be our #4 linebacker when the team uses 4-4 alignments against the run; he could even push for Ellison's starting job on the weak side.
57-Josh Stamer: Stamer gets the nod for the final outside spot at the moment due to his special teams prowess, but I'm not sold on him being a part of the final roster. The team has a lot of young linebackers who could surprise during training camp; if one of them does earn a spot, Stamer is the first to go.
Rounding it out: Roy Manning, Larry Edwards. Manning was signed late last season and stuck on the roster; if he shows the coaching staff any sort of special teams potential, I think he'll earn a spot over Stamer due to his superior athletic ability.
Spikes may be gone, but the players "left behind" are talented, intelligent and are being led by one of the potential young stars of the league in Crowell. Fear not, Bills fans - we won't miss Spikes. This group (as a whole, including inside 'backers) is going to surprise people.