Aaron Schobel isn't retiring, but he isn't returning to the Buffalo Bills, either. At age 32, Schobel revealed to various media outlets on Thursday that he had no intention of reporting to Bills OTAs or mandatory training camps, and while he didn't rule out a return to the team at some point, he sounds all but done with football for this organization.
Schobel leaves the organization with 78 career sacks, good for second in team history behind the NFL's all-time sack leader, Bruce Smith. Schobel led the Bills in sacks in eight of his nine professional seasons; in that same time frame, the highest total any of his teammates posted in a single season was six, posted by now-departed Ryan Denney in 2006. To say that Schobel has been Buffalo's only pass-rushing threat for the past decade would be quite the understatement.
Buffalo now has six outside linebackers under contract as the team makes the transition to the 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator George Edwards. Combined, those six players have 28.5 career sacks. If you're worried about Buffalo's pass rush entering the 2010 season, you're not alone. The team has some talent at this position, but this young group will be under a lot of pressure to produce now that Schobel is out of the picture.
Let's start by briefly going over Buffalo's outside linebacker depth chart.
Left Outside Linebacker: Playing on the strong side of the alignment, these players will be better run defenders than pass rushers, and will deal with tight ends more often than the right outside linebackers.
Chris Kelsay: As the Bills' new resident veteran pass rusher, you'd hope that Kelsay would be the team's active career leader in sacks; he's not. That honor belongs to Marcus Stroud. The 6'4", 261-pound Kelsay is the most athletically limited player in this group, but his chances of making the roster actually improve with Schobel out of the picture, as the Bills could use his experience on the roster. Has the look of being a very situational player at LOLB only, but only an unusually strong pre-season from Ellis will keep Kelsay off the roster at this point.
Reggie Torbor: He's never played outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment at the NFL level, but entering his seventh pro season, that's what he's being asked to do as the newest member of the Bills. He played OLB in the 4-3 for four years in New York, and spent the last two at ILB in Miami's 3-4 defense. Edwards is very familiar with Torbor's abilities, so he's got that going for him, but 6.5 career sacks and a position switch keep Torbor as strictly a depth option for the time being.
Chris Ellis: Entering his third year out of Virginia Tech, Ellis is a forgotten man thanks to his two highly anonymous pro seasons. He's barely played to this point in his career, and no one's quite sure how his 261-pound frame will transition to 3-4 OLB. Right now, he looks like a better fit on the left side due to his size, but run defense has never been his strong suit. The jury's still out on this guy, but there's such a lack of talent at this position that a strong pre-season will likely ensure his roster spot.
Right Outside Linebacker
Playing on the weak side of the alignment, these players will be the team's go-to pass rushers; they'll be better athletes, more instinctive players, and ideally, these guys are your playmakers.
Aaron Maybin: Drafted No. 11 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, Maybin's rookie year was very forgettable, but no one denies that his talent is great, and his potential remains enormous. Like Ellis, he barely played in 2009, but with Schobel out of the picture, his playing time - and in all likelihood, the starting right outside linebacker spot - is now guaranteed. Say it with me, folks: Buffalo's best pass rusher - the one player with the most talent at getting after the quarterback - has zero career sacks. Yikes.
Danny Batten: Some believe that Batten, a sixth-round pick out of South Dakota State, is a better fit on the strong side of the alignment, as he's not a phenomenal pass rusher (though he's certainly capable), and his size and athleticism will make him an excellent coverage player. I tend to agree with that summary. However, Buffalo is so desperate for athletic depth at the pass-rushing OLB position that I'd be shocked if he didn't become Maybin's chief understudy immediately. Batten has a real opportunity to get a lot of playing time in 2010.
Antonio Coleman: With 27.5 career sacks in the SEC, many draft experts were somewhat surprised when this Auburn product went undrafted. He was very productive in college, and has the athleticism and instincts to play at this level. He doesn't hold up well against the run, so he'll be used almost exclusively on the right side. Buffalo is so desperate for a pass rusher to emerge that Coleman's got a fantastic shot of sticking with this team.
I won't include Arthur Moats' name in this analysis, but don't forget about him, either. A fellow sixth-round pick (out of James Madison) along with Batten, Moats was a college defensive end, but has been used at inside linebacker since entering the league. Drawing comparisons to James Harrison coming out of college, it wouldn't surprise me if the Bills saw fit to, at a bare minimum, give Moats reps at OLB, if not move him there permanently down the line.
The bottom line here is that when Chris Kelsay is your most accomplished 3-4 OLB with 22 career sacks in seven seasons, you've got serious, serious issues on the horizon. The crux of the pass rush will be on Maybin's shoulders, and given his inexperience at his new position, that's a ton of pressure resting on the 22-year-old's shoulders. The rest of the depth chart is young and possesses intriguing talent, but like Maybin, they're wholly unproven (though, luckily for them, they won't be under nearly as much pressure). The jury's still out on Torbor, who is a much more natural fit on the inside. He hasn't been asked to play a predominant pass-rushing role since his days as a defensive end at Auburn, which ended in 2003.
We're going to be talking about Aaron Maybin a lot over the next several months, folks. Like it or not - fair or not - he's got to have a big season.