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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. With outside linebackers out of the way, let's delve into the middle linebackers on Buffalo's roster.
The Tampa-2 defense (especially the version that Perry Fewell coordinates) asks some very unique things of its linebackers. While the outside linebackers are generally lighter, faster and asked to fly to the football, the role of the inside backer is slightly different. London Fletcher, who vacates the position as a free agent defection, was often seen dropping back into coverage last year, which contributed to his stellar 3-interception season. He was also asked to shed blocks from inside guards more often, due to the penetrating style (rather than the space-eating style) of our Cover-2 defensive tackles.
With Fletcher gone, the Bills concentrated their off-season linebacking efforts on bringing in a little more size to the inside linebacking corps; the idea was to give the inside 'backer position a bit more bulk, making it easier to shed blocks behind a defensive tackle rotation that remains a question mark for this defense. That's been accomplished; the hurdle now is getting experience at the position.
51-Paul Posluszny: While he's still listed as second on the depth chart, Poz will likely be the starter on opening day. He has the desired size for the position, and he should be better able to take on blocks than Fletcher was. His one concern at this point is coverage - will he be able to hold his own in the middle of our pass defense? There will be growing pains, but this Bills fan loves Poz already.
52-John DiGiorgio: This guy is sneaky. He snuck his way onto the roster last year despite being undrafted out of Saginaw Valley State. He snuck his way onto the field for the majority of the team's games last year, making a couple plays on defense and playing well on special teams. Now he's snuck into the first unit defense throughout mini-camps and has held off Posluszny for the starting job thus far. Don't let this guy sneak up on you - he may be small, but he's always around the ball. He'd be better off as a situational guy, however.
53-Mario Haggan: I have him listed as an inside 'backer here, but his best position is probably on the strong side as Angelo Crowell's backup. He does, however, have great size and would be good inside, especially on run downs. Either way, he's the sixth linebacker on the depth chart (behind the three starters, Wire and DiGiorgio) and makes this roster due to his prominence on special teams.
Rounding it out: Thaddaeus Washington, Kevin Harrison. Neither has a real shot to make the roster due to the veteran depth here (Haggan, Wire and Stamer specifically), but keep an eye on Washington. He was very productive in college, and is a player I'd love to see stick with this team, even if it's just on the practice squad.
In terms of pure talent, Buffalo has upgraded the inside linebacker position by swapping Fletcher for Posluszny. But like most other positions on the Bills' defense, this position is green. Posluszny has a lot on his plate - it's not often that rookie linebackers have as much responsibility as Poz does with this team. Time will tell if he's up to the challenge, but this is fact: it can't get much worse than last year.