Only two Buffalo Bills defenders played more snaps in 2012 than linebacker Nick Barnett. Only four - including Barnett - were on the field as much as strong safety George Wilson. On Monday, both players were released by the team as the organization heads in a new direction defensively.
(The top five defenders in terms of snap counts in 2012, by the way: Stephon Gilmore with 1,056; Jairus Byrd with 1,022; Barnett with 999; Mario Williams with 929; and Wilson with 896.)
It's not often that a team releases two of its five biggest-name defenders, let alone players that are still relatively productive. Bills GM Buddy Nix felt compelled to address the decisions publicly in a statement issued by the team on Monday afternoon.
"Moves like the ones we’ve made today are never easy, but we have to do what’s best for our team and keep moving forward," Nix said. "We’ve got some good young players on our roster who we feel are ready to take the next step and they will now have the opportunity to do so."
As fans and media alike ponder who the team might bring in to replace Barnett and Wilson - buckle up, because you're going to hear the names Bart Scott, LaRon Landry and Eric Smith a lot thanks to their ties to new Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine - it's also important to examine Nix's words at face value and discuss the talent on hand.
Strong safety is relatively simple to figure out: Da'Norris Searcy, a fourth-round pick in 2011 out of North Carolina, has been worked into the lineup in his first two seasons, and has about as much experience as can be reasonably expected from a backup. He is, without question, the "good young player" that Nix is referring to at safety. He only played 272 snaps on defense in 2012, however; that's roughly the same amount of work as Mark Anderson (244) got. With Pettine bringing in his own system, you can expect, at minimum, a veteran safety that will be able to compete with Searcy for a job. Smith, 30 in March, seems like an ideal candidate, while Landry - a much better player - only spent one year with Pettine.
Linebacker is a bit more difficult to figure out, simply because Barnett was the only three-down player at the position; the next most-used linebacker, Bryan Scott (590 snaps), is an unrestricted free agent - and he hardly fits the "good young player" description Nix rolled out.
It's likely that Nix was referring to two recent draft picks at linebacker in 2011 third-rounder Kelvin Sheppard (LSU) and 2012 fourth-rounder Nigel Bradham (Florida State). Both ended the 2012 season as starters, but were clearly part-time players; Sheppard, the two-down middle linebacker, saw just 504 (46.3 percent of) snaps, while Bradham, who elevated to the first unit a little more than a month into his rookie season, played 395 snaps. (No other Bills linebacker beyond that quartet had more than 122.)
Sheppard was the higher draft pick, but has shown a limited upside in coverage to this point in his career and may be limited to two-down run stopping duties; Bradham, however, is a much better athlete in space, and could eventually develop into the type of short-area coverage linebacker with big-hitting ability that seems like an ideal fit for Pettine's multiple-front, attack-first defense.
Still, the Bills are now woefully inexperienced at linebacker, and it's a pretty safe bet at this point that the team will need to make radical personnel changes at the position this off-season. Scott, who has spent his entire 11-year playing career working with Rex Ryan (and by extension Pettine), is expected to be released this off-season - and while he has publicly claimed that he'd take a pay cut to stay with Ryan in New York, it's hard not to envision a scenario where Pettine wouldn't jump at the chance to bring Scott in to help teach the system. Now 32 years old (he'll be 33 in August), Scott had 60 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception in Pettine's defense last season.
Nix isn't necessarily wrong - the Bills do have interesting young prospects waiting behind the now-released veterans in Barnett and Wilson at their respective positions, and better opportunities for playing time next season. Unless, of course, Pettine brings his own guys in.