In two years with the Buffalo Bills, GM Buddy Nix has spent half of his day one and two picks on defensive linemen, snagging Torell Troup and Alex Carrington a year ago, and then Marcell Dareus last month. (He also signed another, Dwan Edwards, as a free agent.) Since Dareus was added to the roster, I've been mulling not just the team's defensive flexibility and defensive line depth, but also the role of Chris Kelsay, who signed a rich contract extension last season that will expire after the 2014 season.
More than ever, it's difficult to surmise where Kelsay fits on the field of play. It's a virtual certainty that he'll be out there, but it's anyone's guess as to what his niche will actually be.
Kelsay had a fairly productive season last year, finishing with a career-high 72 tackles and four sacks despite playing outside linebacker for the first time as a professional. Yet in the 3-4 or the 4-3, Kelsay's tough to project at this point - both in where he'll be lining up and what his true role is.
In order to do this projection, we'll base three different alignments off of what Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com believes each unit will look like next season. We'll start with the base 3-4, then move to sub-packages (where four down linemen are almost always used), and then end with the base 4-3. Blue boxes are Brown's words; everything else is mine.
In a 3-4 set it should be from left to right Dareus, (Kyle) Williams and Dwan Edwards. Carrington and Spencer Johnson are the two rotational ends with Torell Troup the backup nose.
That is my belief, as well. I also believe they'll be using the 3-4 base defense far more frequently than they did last season now that they've got more players to do so. In the base 3-4, Kelsay would be the Sam (strong-side) outside linebacker, with Shawne Merriman playing the Jack (weak-side) spot. This is the easiest alignment to project Kelsay into.
If they choose to go to more of a 4-3 look in the subpackages, Dareus will likely kick inside with Williams. Carrington, who is one of the better pass rushing ends would likely be on the field as well, with possible a stand up linebacker on the right side next to Williams.
That stand-up linebacker Brown speaks of? If Kelsay's on the field, that's his likely role, as he's still - despite how he was used a year ago - best-suited to play with his hand in the dirt as an end in a 4-3 look. It's possible that the team could use him in a linebacker capacity in that alignment, with a guy like Merriman serving as the rusher next to Williams, but that is decidedly not the best way to use Kelsay.
In a straight 4-3 I’d expect it to be left to right Dareus, Troup, Williams, Edwards.
I'm going to guess that Bills opponents will love seeing this alignment, as it's one that they'll be able to pass on. As beefy and talented as that front four is, there's not an elite edge rusher there - and if you're bringing a linebacker, you're dogging or blitzing, and good quarterbacks eat blitzes alive. Kelsay could be a stand-up linebacker in that look - acting as the fifth rusher and added beef against the run - but he'd be a massive coverage liability. Personally, I'd rather see the team use Merriman as the fifth rusher and perhaps a guy like Danny Batten or Arthur Moats in lieu of Kelsay.
Kelsay is, by a considerable margin, the toughest front-seven defender to project into Buffalo's various alignments, because he lacks the comprehensive skill set to play any one position (and therefore doesn't have a true position with the Bills), and has the type of contract that mandates he be on the field. The Bills are going to use Kelsay quite a bit next season - and in all likelihood, you'll see him stand up and rush the passer, rush with a hand in the dirt, and even drop into coverage. As the Bills continue to flesh out their defensive identity, it's just going to get even more difficult to fit Kelsay in. Right now, he seems more like a guy that they'll plug into a hole than a guy who'll live up to his franchise-building block contract.