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Bills Training Camp Battles: Nickel Linebacker

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Ten days to go, folks. Ten more days, and we can officially put a bow on the 2010 NFL off-season, watching with glee as our Buffalo Bills return to the practice field at St. John Fisher College. ("Glee" may not be a term we'll be able to use past the mid-point of August, so cherish it while you can.)

Last week, we began looking at some of the more interesting positional battles that will take place during Bills camp by examining the third defensive end role. Today, we'll stay in the realm of defensive sub-packages and reserve players by discussing an important, but often-underlooked, role in a 3-4 defense - the nickel linebacker.

Who Becomes the 'Coverage Specialist' at LB?
Most linebackers in the 3-4 have some form of responsibility when it comes to pass coverage, but on traditional downs, those responsibilities are somewhat limited by offensive personnel and the demands of the scheme. In nickel and dime formations (that utilize three down linemen, mind you), no matter down and distance, 3-4 teams will often substitute a coverage linebacker onto the field to play deeper zones or match up with tight ends or backs. How that battle unfolds in Buffalo could be a key into figuring out the Bills' depth at linebacker, and their strategy for keeping specialists at the back end of their roster.

The Candidates
Paul Posluszny and Andra Davis are penciled in as the starting inside linebackers, and roles can certainly be carved out for veterans Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor, as well. It's unlikely that the Bills will look for a pure coverage specialist within their outside linebacking corps; they'd do better to try to find a pass rusher or two from that group.

This battle is one that will take place between deeper reserves, and the two leading candidates at this point are Keith Ellison and Nic Harris. Ellison enters his fifth year out of Oregon State, and spent his first four years with the Bills playing all three linebacker spots in the team's now-defunct Tampa 2 system. At 6'0" and 229 pounds, his size leaves a lot to be desired in the new scheme, but with experience as a college safety, he's proven adequate in coverage. Harris has a similar background; the college safety is undersized (6'2", 232), but has enough natural athleticism and experience to play well in coverage. Both players carry durability concerns, and both figure to be key contributors on most special teams units.

On paper, this battle is close; Harris has slightly better athleticism and slightly better long-term potential (not to mention slightly more value on special teams), but Ellison has far more experience, is a quicker study, and has proven himself a productive, if underwhelming, starter early in his Bills career. Right now, the safe money is on Ellison, but like all of the Bills' positional battles this summer, this thing is wide open.

Why This Battle Might Not Matter
Ellison and Harris aren't, however, competing only with each other. Given that the Bills don't quite have the personnel to pull off traditional 3-4 looks in all situations, there's an excellent chance the Bills could be using four down linemen in nickel and dime situations - which obviously limits the number of reps a nickel linebacker would get in the first place.

Let's assume for the moment, however, that the Bills find ways to use three down linemen enough in sub-package situations to keep the nickel linebacker role relevant. Even in that circumstance, that there are other players with a role to play in this discussion.

Jairus Byrd won't be covering anyone down in the box - at least, he'd better not need to - but safeties Donte Whitner, George Wilson and Bryan Scott all possess that ability. What's more, all three of those safeties have proven themselves useful defending the run during their time with this team - so it's not as if either Ellison or Harris hold a distinct advantage over the safety group in that department. There's every chance that defensive coordinator George Edwards will prefer using three or even four safeties on the field rather than either of the two coverage linebackers - and that's regardless of how many down linemen are used.

Still, depth is important, and Edwards might not feel comfortable turning to another safety if he loses one in that sub-package role. It's never a bad idea to have a diverse assortment of talents amongst your depth players, either, and Ellison and Harris are certainly unique when looking at Buffalo's inside linebackers. It seems certain that at least one of these players will make the team, but keeping two specialists seems frivolous for a team re-building - so whether or not the nickel linebacker role is a significant one in the new 3-4 defense, this positional battle will likely have an impact on the shape of the opening-day roster.