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Bills pass on adding big-name LB in busy off-season

Mitchell still awaiting a clear-cut running mate (photo source)

Just a few days prior to the start of the 2008 NFL regular season, then-Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Angelo Crowell decided to have knee surgery; the Bills, upon hearing that decision, placed Crowell on IR, effectively ending his career with Buffalo. Keith Ellison replaced Crowell in the starting lineup, and the Bills haven't looked back since.

Most Bills fans are quick to point out that amongst an off-season that saw productive change in several critical areas, one position that was not (satisfactorily) addressed was outside linebacker. Kawika Mitchell has a spot locked down, though fans won't be quick to forget his tendency to disappear for stretches. Ellison currently has the inside track at locking up the starting spot; in a relatively satisfying off-season, this one starting holdover is perhaps the biggest head-scratcher.

Head-scratching to some, at least. Buffalo spends a lot of time playing with extra safeties or cornerbacks on the field - if you recall, the Bills played three safeties and three corners (or four corners and two safeties) quite frequently last season. SS Bryan Scott is as good as a linebacker on run downs, with man coverage skills to boot. FS Ko Simpson lost his starting spot when Scott cracked the lineup, yet still finished fifth on the entire team with 66 tackles - five more than Donte Whitner. In fact, of Buffalo's top fifteen overall tacklers, a whopping four were safeties, and seven were defensive backs.

The tackle totals aren't meant to be an indictment of Buffalo's linebacking corps; on the contrary, when talking total tackles, Buffalo's linebackers finished 1-2-3 in the pecking order. The presence of several defensive backs on that list is meant to illustrate the sheer amount of playing time that the defensive backs get - and, more importantly, that Buffalo's linebacking corps is, at a bare minimum, active and around the ball.

The more important argument
The fact of the matter is that given that the Bills needed to address roughly a half-dozen critical issues entering the off-season, the team was completely correct to prioritize linebacker last. It's not like they didn't address it, either - Ellison will have stiff competition from free agent signing Pat Thomas, rookie Nic Harris and the no-longer-injured Alvin Bowen for a starting gig. Those players, if they're anything, are athletic and well-equipped to seriously challenge Ellison for his tentative starting spot. Meanwhile, there is depth at outside linebacker for the first time in recent memory - and in a Tampa 2 defense, you can generally take quantity over quality at the linebacker position.

Case in point: the Indianapolis Colts. Indy, headed up by Bills castoff GM Bill Polian, has routinely let its linebackers walk in free agency, starting with Mike Peterson and including names like Cato June and Marcus Washington. The Bills themselves had three former Colts pass through their doors this off-season on free agent visits: Peterson, June and Freddy Keiaho (who subsequently re-signed with Indy). A quote from this 2007 article says it all about Polian's reliance on linebackers and the position's importance in a Tony Dungy defense:

Polian also has good friends in baseball. He says he's learned from executives such as Jim Hendry of the Cubs and Theo Epstein of the Red Sox. "They don't worry about losing free agents every year," Polian said last week. "[The Colts] lose the off-season every year. The baseball people have helped me understand it's meaningless." Case in point: Polian has let four very good linebackers walk as free agents over the last five years: Mike Peterson (to the Jaguars), Marcus Washington (Redskins), David Thornton (Titans) and Cato June ( Bucs). The small, quick, sure-tackling linebackers called for in Dungy's scheme are commonplace in the draft. The average 2007 cap cost of the four lost linebackers: $3.81 million. Average cap cost of current starters Gary Brackett, Tyjuan Hagler and Freddie Keiaho: $1.1 million. The lesson is, spend money on indispensable players, and trust your scouts to find winning players at other positions.

This is not to say that linebackers aren't important in a Tampa 2 - clearly, every position on the field is critical to success on a given play. But if Buffalo is spending most of its time with Paul Posluszny and the aforementioned Mitchell on the field in sub-package situations, how crucial is it for them to have a third linebacker that won't play every snap like his two cohorts?

Instead of prioritizing a third linebacker that will only play situationally, Buffalo focused on revamping its offensive line, providing more weapons for Trent Edwards, and trying to find some speed and playmaking at defensive end and safety in the draft. Smart decision - and it's made smarter by the fact that they added some serious (if underwhelming to the masses) competition for Ellison, a player who shouldn't get too comfortable in his starting role. Considering the prominence of the LB position in this defense and the team's extensive, creative use of personnel in the defensive backfield, Buffalo went about addressing this position in the correct fashion.