We've talked at length over the past week or so about the fact that the Buffalo Bills have a ton of work to do as they switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment under new defensive coordinator George Edwards. The team needs a nose tackle. They need better 5-technique fits at defensive end. They need more pass rushers. Unfortunately, they're also lacking depth at linebacker.
Don't get me wrong. As far as needs go in Buffalo's front seven, inside linebacker probably ranks last, because the team does have two veteran players that they can pencil in as 2010 starters without having to worry too much. That doesn't mean it's a position that doesn't need to be addressed heavily, however; Buffalo's contenders at this position were brought in because of their schematic fit for Perry Fewell's zone-based, speed-oriented scheme, and their skill sets, by and large, don't translate to the scheme that Edwards will likely run.
After the jump, you'll find our analysis of Buffalo's inside linebacker prospects. Once you get past the top two names, you're looking at a lineup that could be the biggest part of the Bills' upcoming defensive purge. You might not see a lot of name imports here this off-season, but you're almost certainly going to see a lot of bodies brought in.
What the new regime might be looking for
No matter which type of 3-4 scheme Edwards installs, the Bills have two capable starters that they can pencil in for the short term. Don't expect them to go out of their way to pick up a big-name linebacker, unless that linebacker is an outside linebacker. Depth, however, is a critical need, as there are exactly zero players capable of playing the 3-4 sitting behind the two starters. Look for a mid-round pick(s) and perhaps a low-tier free agent or two for reserve purposes.
Ironically, even though we're only looking at two players as worthy of being in a 3-4 defense, there are 10 players that project best to this position. Strange, eh?
Paul Posluszny. Poz is a downhill player and a sound tackler. His weak area will always be sifting through the trash, as they say, and if Buffalo runs a two-gap 3-4, Poz won't have to do as much of that anymore. Playing the weak-side ILB spot, Poz has a shot to be better than ever, as his strengths will be maximized. I, personally, expect a career year from Poz in 2010, particularly as he's entering the last year of his rookie contract.
Contract status: 1 year remaining. Owed $665K in base salary.
Kawika Mitchell. Signed to play outside in a 4-3, Mitchell will be asked to slide inside next to Posluszny. Mitchell is coming off a season-ending knee injury he suffered in a Week 5 loss to Cleveland, but all signs at this point indicate that he'll be ready to go come training camp. Mitchell, like Posluszny, is a downhill player that could excel with a move inside. His grip on a roster spot is firm given his size, experience and contract situation.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $8.2M in base salary.
Keith Ellison. Buffalo might be tempted to keep this RFA around; the ankle injury that placed him on IR isn't considered serious, and he's a smart player more than capable of quickly picking up the nuances of a 3-4 defense. Given the Bills' depth issues, it wouldn't shock me to see the Bills slap Ellison with a solid tender and let him be a backup. The situation, however, doesn't completely hide the fact that Ellison isn't suited to playing in this defensive scheme. That might ultimately seal his fate.
Contract status: Restricted Free Agent
Chris Draft. Signed as an injury replacement mid-way through the 2009 season because of his experience and familiarity with Perry Fewell's defensive system. He's very much a fringe player at this point, and probably won't be back. Chris Draft is one hell of a model American, though - very, very nice guy.
Contract status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Nic Harris. Anyone sensing a pattern here? Harris, entering his second year out of Oklahoma, is a light, quick linebacker that suits Buffalo's outgoing defensive scheme. He's not a 3-4 inside 'backer. He might be better suited to drop a little weight and move back to strong safety, his college position. If he makes the team, it'll be as a special teamer.
Contract status: Undisclosed. In second year of multi-year contract.
Ashlee Palmer. There's not a lot to say here; Palmer is very much in the same boat as Harris, though he doesn't have the positional versatility of his fellow rookie.
Contract status: Undisclosed. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.
Marcus Buggs. Buggs ended the 2009 season on IR, going out the same week as Mitchell. Again - light, quick linebacker incredibly ill-suited for this scheme.
Contract status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Jon Corto. Here's another guy whose best chance of sticking is on special teams - Corto has established himself as one of Buffalo's best in that area. He, too, played safety in college, so don't be shocked to see him move around some. That's if he gets a free agent tender, obviously.
Contract status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Josh Stamer. Stamer returned to Buffalo to play a reserve role in the final weeks of the '09 season, and is very unlikely to return.
Contract status: Undisclosed. Likely an Unrestricted Free Agent.
Ryan Manalac. He spent part of the pre-season with Buffalo, then was brought back late in the year after the injury bug bit. Same story as pretty much everyone else above.
Contract status: Your guess is as good as ours.
Who stays? Who goes?
Given the alarming lack of depth here, it's very safe to say that Posluszny and Mitchell aren't going anywhere. Both are good players, and both will almost certainly be opening day starters. I wouldn't be surprised if each of the other eight names on the list were let go before the '10 regular season began. Ellison might be retained simply because he's somewhat dependable, but it'll only be as deep depth.
If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
Posluszny and Mitchell are penciled in as starters. Harris, Palmer and Corto are retained because of their special teams abilities. Depending on what GM Buddy Nix sees via free agency, Ellison could be retained. There's a lot of work to do behind the two starters, so expect a lot of bodies - not necessarily names - at this position.
Names to keep an eye on
I personally believe that Alabama LB Rolando McClain is one of only three or four elite prospects available in the 2010 NFL Draft, so despite the need areas everywhere else, I'd have a hard time being OK with the Bills passing on him should he be available at No. 9. Larry Foote is a 3-4 veteran and could be brought in simply to teach the ropes to younger guys such as Posluszny; he could also push for a starting role. Jeff Ulbrich would also be a cheap vet that can act as a coach-on-the-field.