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Bills Training Camp Battles: SAM Linebacker

When your football team has as many glaring weaknesses as the Buffalo Bills did just this past March, there will almost always be a position that largely goes on the back burner. As the Bills were re-tooling their offensive line, signing Terrell Owens, and addressing their lack of pass rush and ball skills defensively, the linebacker position got shoved down the priority list.

With Paul Posluszny entrenched at middle linebacker and Kawika Mitchell solidified as the starter on the weak side, the strong-side (SAM) linebacker remains the glaring weakness in the linebacker corps. Keith Ellison, entering his fourth year out of Oregon State, has moonlighted at the position for three years, finally starting the entire season there last year. While his play has not been overly unsatisfactory, it has been a target for upgrade for quite a while - ever since Angelo Crowell's trip to IR ended his Bills career, in fact.

The Bills hosted several free agent linebackers - including some well-known veterans such as Cato June and Mike Peterson - earlier this off-season to try to fill the role. Nothing worked out, so as it stands right now, Ellison remains penciled in as the starter on the outside. But that doesn't mean that if Ellison is out-performed during training camp and the pre-season that he'll remain the starter; on the contrary, the Bills are likely taking a "start the best player" approach, as they should be. Ellison has some challengers, and one of them - a rookie (hint, hint) - may be a worthy adversary.

The Front Runner: Keith Ellison. I would stop short of calling Keith Ellison a liability, an act most Bills fans gladly undertake in my stead. Ellison is simply suffering from Josh Reed syndrome - he's being asked too much, and though he's played well, it's simply not to the level one would expect from an NFL starter. Ellison has dealt with this since his rookie season, when he replaced Takeo Spikes in the starting lineup - he's simply not an NFL starter. But he's a smart player, an underrated athlete, and he'll rarely kill you with a mistake. In that light, he's under-appreciated. He belongs in this league, and as far as backup linebackers go, Ellison is a perfect fit for this team and its scheme. But if a player out-performs Ellison, they'll start - it's that simple. For now, Ellison is the (very?) likely starter.

The Challenger: Nic Harris. He's only a rookie fifth-round pick, but Harris has two things working in his favor - his physicality and his intelligence. Harris played safety at Oklahoma, moonlighted at linebacker there, and has a head to rival Ellison's on his shoulders. If Ellison can pick up the playbook quickly - and he did - Harris can, too. Buffalo's coaching staff liked Harris pre-draft because they viewed him as a slightly more physical Ellison-type, with the smarts and versatility to help out in a lot of different ways. Harris has an uphill climb to start at linebacker, there's no question. But he also has a better chance than anyone else of unseating Ellison simply because he brings more to the table from a run-stopping angle. That's an area in which the Bills need improvement.

The... Other Challenger, Maybe: Pat Thomas. Earlier this week, I listed Thomas a bubble player with a lot to lose during training camp. Signed just this past March, Thomas is a solid athlete that has put together a couple of nice seasons early in his career. He also has a good working knowledge of zone-based defenses. But as the veteran of the group, he won't get preferential treatment - and that started in mini-camp, when Thomas ran predominantly with second- and third-team defenses.

The Dark Horse: Alvin Bowen. Entering his second NFL season, Bowen is essentially a rookie, having missed all but a handful of practice sessions last season with a severe knee injury. Bowen is light, quick and fast, but that's to his detriment if the Bills are looking for more physical play from their strong-side linebacker. It might be safe to say that he's clearly the best athlete of this bunch, however - and if that helps him make plays in camp and during the pre-season, he has a shot. But it should be noted that Bowen is probably the darkest of dark horses; a lot will have to happen for 50 to be starting in September.

I know that the comments section is going to turn into a love-fest for Derrick Brooks, but I'd appreciate your thoughts on these three players as well. Leaving Brooks out of the poll, as well - polls are for actual team members. Sound off, folks!