Heading into training camp and the pre-season, the Buffalo Bills were seriously concerned about their youthful depth at the linebacker position. When the team lost backup MLB John DiGiorgio for the season, their most experienced depth player was no longer available to them. The Bills, after entertaining several veteran free agents in free agency without signing them, forged ahead towards the regular season with Pat Thomas - he of a mere 29 NFL games in four seasons - as their "veteran" depth.
Though the depth at linebacker remains a serious concern given the group's vast inexperience, there has been some surprisingly solid play out of the group.
Prior to the 2008 season, the Bills made the decision to enter the year with just six linebackers on their roster. Considering the team's depth along the defensive line, in the defensive backfield and at the skill positions offensively, the team will very likely sacrifice numbers at linebacker to keep more talented players at other positions. Six, once again, seems likely at this position. The good news: the Bills have some really solid young talent to be choosing from.
Though many Bills fans hoped that an open competition might exist for the starting role on the strong side, Keith Ellison nailed down the starting role very early in the off-season, and has enjoyed a solid pre-season. Though he's still the linebacker that comes off the field in nickel situations - as he should be - Ellison has been stellar defending the run, filling lanes and making big hits. Once again, he is proving how underrated he is, even if he's simultaneously underwhelming.
Kawika Mitchell and Paul Posluszny were always going to be starters. These two players are the unquestioned leaders of this young, inexperienced linebacker corps; Mitchell has a Super Bowl ring to his name, and although his play has once again been streaky this pre-season, it's clear that he will once again be an asset for defensive coordinator Perry Fewell as a blitzer. Posluszny, meanwhile, has picked up right where he left off in 2008 and then some - he's still a hair late in pass coverage, but looks far more comfortable in that role. His run defense has been nothing short of impressive - more than any other player, Posluszny has found himself in opposing backfields this pre-season. He still has some ground to gain in his development, but Poz brings a physical presence to the team's run defense.
Who nabs the backup spots?
We already knew all of that about the starters, though. The intriguing question at this position is not who would start, but who would win positions as depth players. Right now, it's becoming pretty clear that Marcus Buggs, Jon Corto and rookie Nic Harris are the front-runners.
Buggs is perhaps the biggest surprise of the group; though he started the 2008 season on the active roster, he only found himself there after the Bills were forced to place Angelo Crowell on Injured Reserve. Buggs himself would end up on IR a few short weeks later, and most had written him off as a likely roster cut with the return of DiGiorgio and the signing of Thomas. But Buggs was given an opportunity to compete right away, and spent much of camp splitting second-team MLB reps with Thomas after DiGiorgio was lost. With Thomas missing three consecutive pre-season games with an ankle injury, Buggs has taken advantage of his opportunity to secure himself a job - and he had his best pre-season game to date last Saturday in Pittsburgh, finishing with 5 tackles and playing fast and physical in run support.
Jon Corto, too, started the '08 season on the active roster as a special teams ace. Corto was another Bills linebacker that eventually ended the season on IR, but he caught the eye of the coaching staff when he reported to camp this year at a svelte 220 pounds - 15 more than he weighed as a converted linebacker last season - while retaining all of the speed that made him an NFL safety prospect. Corto has not played a ton of defense this pre-season, but special teams coordinator Bobby April has used him in many different ways on special teams, including as a starting punt gunner in Pittsburgh. When a player has special teams versatility and play-making ability, and is in favor with the coaching staff, it's not likely he's going anywhere.
We have already discussed Harris' solid pre-season. As a rookie fifth-round pick, he's been a virtual lock to make the roster ever since he showed his potential in the camp setting. Though his most recent pre-season performance was his worst yet, Harris has shown solid instincts and a nose for the football - but he, too, is making the switch to linebacker from college safety, and he's got a ways to go before he challenges for a starting spot.
Bottom line at LB
The only scary part of the Bills' linebacker depth is, as we've mentioned, inexperience. It's not likely that talented players such as Thomas, second-year man Alvin Bowen and undrafted rookie free agent Ashlee Palmer will make the roster, even though all three have made their share of plays throughout camp. That says a little something about, at a minimum, the raw talent that this group possesses.
Those worried about the inexperience should be calmed a bit by the fact that the Bills will spend the majority of their time defensively in sub-packages utilizing their depth and experience in the defensive backfield. Ellison, a starter by name, may not see the field for 50 percent of the team's snaps this season. Considering that fact alone, if Posluszny and Mitchell can stay healthy (each played a full 16 games in 2008), the Bills should be in business.
Keeping Buggs, Corto and Harris (or, in reality, whatever trio ends up sticking in reserve roles) gives the team three young, active players that can contribute to the team even if they never see the field defensively. Ideally, that would be the role of each of these players, as most would be defensive liabilities this year. Young depth is a scary proposition, but talent isn't. I'm actually quite comfortable with this group heading into the regular season.