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On Bills middle linebackers and fan expectations

Following the 2006 season, the Buffalo Bills had two major defensive free agents that the team allowed to leave: cornerback Nate Clements, who signed a mega-deal in San Francisco, and middle linebacker London Fletcher, a productive veteran that the Bills allowed to walk to Washington.

Fletcher developed a reputation in Buffalo during his five-year stay as being a numbers machine, but not making many impact plays.  He was replaced early in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft when the Bills traded up to land Penn State's Paul Posluszny.  "Poz" has only completed one full year of starting middle linebacker experience, but we're already starting to hear whispers from the fan base that the college legend is on his way to being an overrated pro.

Linebacker is a traditionally rich position in Bills lore.  To say the Bills have had a lot of good ones is an understatement.  But in recent seasons, as the Bills have transitioned from a 3-4 defensive look to a 4-3, and then further to a Cover 2, expectations for the middle linebacker position have reached bizarre heights - and as a result, Fletcher was run out of town, and we're already talking about Poz being overrated.  Is this fair?

This quick look at statistics is not meant to be a comparison of Fletcher and Posluszny.  The two linebackers played in different schemes and had vastly different levels of experience during their times in Buffalo.  The only point I'm going to make here is that Fletcher's shortcomings were highly exaggerated, and Posluszny's detractors are thoroughly impatient.

Posluszny ('07-'08) 19 7.2 0 1 1 1 6
Fletcher ('02-'03, Bills) 32 8.8 5 0 2 3 7
Fletcher ('99-'00, Rams) 32 6.9 8.5 4 1 0 0

Fletcher has two statistical categories here: one for his early years (this is the bottom row, and includes data from his time with the St. Louis Rams), and one from his first two seasons in Buffalo (the middle row; Fletcher was a four-year vet by that point in his career).  You can see that in terms of our favorite category - "big plays" - Fletcher holds a distinct advantage at both points in his career.  However, just like when we discuss Donte Whitner, fair excuse(s) can be offered.

Note the difference in playing time, first and foremost.  Fletcher entered the starting lineup for the Rams in 1999 - his second season in the league - during Kurt Warner's ascent to stardom.  In fact, the Rams won the Super Bowl in Fletcher's first season as a starter.  He played in 13 more games than Posluszny through his first two seasons, and clearly, he played on much better teams as well.  Poz has been in Buffalo for over two years now, but has just 19 games to show for it.

In terms of tackle production, there hasn't been much of a drop-off moving from Fletcher to Posluszny, particularly considering Fletcher only spent one season in Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell's Cover 2 scheme (not covered statistically here).  Why, then, does Fletcher dwarf Posluszny in the "important" categories?  If the pass rush is a factor when we evaluate Whitner, it most certainly pertains to Posluszny as well.

Pass rush discrepancies
Take a look at the team sack totals for these three two-year runs:

Team Team Sacks
Bills, '07-'08 (Poz)
Bills, '02-'03 (Fletch)
Rams, '99-'00 (Fletch)

It seems pretty obvious that Fletcher was able to put up outstanding "big play" numbers early in his career because the Rams had perhaps the league's best pass rush during their Super Bowl days.  108 sacks in just 32 games is unfathomable in these parts.  Fletcher was also far more productive than Bills fans gave him credit for, particularly early in his Bills career, where the team put up 67 sacks in two seasons.  Posluszny's Bills clearly trail in that department in a major way.  Again, sacks aren't a true indicator of overall pass rushing prowess, but it's the only metric we've got to make the attempt.

So let's dispel two notions right off the bat: Fletcher wasn't nearly as bad as Bills fans made him out to be when the team let him go.  Why should size trump production?  Yet his height and weight was constantly referred to when he walked.  I, personally, grew so tired of the "he only makes tackles five yards downfield" argument that I was resigned to the fact that I'd eventually pull out all my hair - a feat I thankfully never achieved, given my perfect genetic breeding for baldness.  Fletch did just fine in Buffalo, and I doubt Bills fans would turn down his Bills stat line these days.

Meanwhile, we have already discussed whether or not Posluszny is overrated this off-season.  Like Whitner, Posluszny has been a bit disappointing to some early in his career - not due to his injury, but due to his lack of big plays.  Why should Posluszny get a pass while Fletcher (and Whitner) gets razzed for the same thing?  Truth is, he shouldn't - and that's why we're having the "overrated or not" discussions this early in Posluszny's career.  Like Whitner, however, Posluszny has a great opportunity to improve and become the productive middle linebacker we've been thirsting for since... well, London Fletcher.

In a nutshell: I believe that there is a strange aura surrounding the middle linebacker position in Buffalo, particularly in terms of Bills fans' expectations for players manning the position.  Fletcher wasn't missed by many (not when he left, at least), but he was an incredibly productive player in Buffalo.  Now people are gearing up to pounce on Posluszny after one full year of starting experience and little help from his pass rush.  I'm not saying Posluszny should get a free pass, much like I've been saying Whitner shouldn't get one, either.  My question to you this morning, Rumblers: are expectations for middle linebackers overblown in Buffalo?