The linebacker position was an area of strength for the Buffalo Bills during the 2014 season, when they were the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL. Brandon Spikes ranked as one of the league's best run-defending linebackers, and he was the least impactful of the three Bills starters at that position. Then-rookie Preston Brown had a rock-solid rookie season, playing at his best in coverage as the season wore on, and Nigel Bradham enjoyed a breakout campaign after finally locking down a full-time starting job.
As was the case for the entirety of Buffalo's defense in their first year under Rex Ryan, things changed dramatically for the negative for the Bills' linebackers in 2015. Bradham's impact and production dipped before he missed the final five games with an ankle injury. Brown regressed to the mean, and then played quite poorly in the most critical stretch of the Bills' schedule. And the schematic shift made Spikes' role obsolete, removing one of the Bills' best run defenders from the equation.
Now, the Bills enter the 2016 offseason with question marks at linebacker, just like they do at several other defensive positions. Bradham is a free agent. Brown might be replaceable. And arguably the best linebacker on the team, Manny Lawson, could also be seen as a potential cap casualty. Our State of the Bills Roster series continues with a breakdown of Buffalo's linebacker situation; as usual, all financial data included here comes straight from the fine folks at Spotrac.com.
Take note, in particular, of the following: we've split this group up into two player types. The edge-setters are the long, lanky, versatile defenders that can set the edge against the run, but are not necessarily viewed as natural pass rushers. The rest are true, second-level linebackers.
- Age: 31 (32 on 7/3/16)
- 2015 earnings: $2.35M
- 2016 cap charge: $3.4M ($2.65M savings if cut)
- Playing time: 702 snaps in 16 games active (64.3% of total)
- Stats: 47 tackles (36 solo), 1 sack, 1 INT, 5 PD
One of the few Bills defenders to definitively benefit from the defensive scheme tweak in 2014, Lawson eventually emerged as an invaluable player for the team toward the end of the 2015 season. He's not an impact edge rusher, but his versatility - he can set the edge as a run defender, is often more than adequate dropping into coverage, and has the length to distract bigger tight ends in coverage - and football acumen make him a perfect fit for what the Ryan brothers want to do defensively. He even played well as an every-down defender when pressed into full-time action as an injury fill-in. The salary number might seem a bit rich to some, but it's hard to envision this Bills regime parting ways with Lawson this offseason.
- Age: 24 (25 on 3/23/16)
- 2015 earnings: $489K
- 2016 cap charge: $616K ($584K savings if cut)
- Playing time: 13 snaps in 11 games active (1.2% of total)
- Stats: 6 tackles (4 solo), 1 FR
A 2014 seventh-round pick, Johnson is a strong athlete with many similarities to Lawson, but he hasn't seen the field much in his first two seasons. He also ended the year on IR. Johnson will be back with the team next summer competing for a roster spot again.
- Age: 23 (24 on 10/27/16)
- 2015 earnings: $540K
- 2016 cap charge: $794K ($470K savings if cut)
- Playing time: 1,071 snaps in 16 games active (98.2% of total)
- Stats: 120 tackles (66 solo), 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD
After (basically) two years as a full-time starter in the NFL, Brown seems like the type of player who can perform well when everything else is clicking around him, but may not necessarily be able to elevate his game - or the unit's as a whole - when things aren't going well. Brown was a solid player as a rookie in 2014, but tailed off a great deal as the 2015 season wore on. He seems to be miscast as the team's top inside linebacker, maybe especially in a defensive scheme that is so complex, but with Ryan's defense relying on playing two linebackers on a near-constant basis, it seems far more likely than not that Brown will be back as a starter in 2016. He is still one of the younger players on Buffalo's roster, affording him time to reach his potential. But he needs to improve against both the run and the pass if he's going to stick.
- Age: 23 (24 on 4/30/16)
- 2015 earnings: $102K (this is almost certainly incorrect)
- 2016 cap charge: $525K ($525K savings if cut)
- Playing time: 84 snaps in 15 games active (7.7% of total)
- Stats: 8 tackles (5 solo), 1 sack, 1 FF, 2 INT, 2 PD
An undrafted rookie out of Stanford, Tarpley stuck with the team thanks in large part to a preseason injury to Ty Powell. He made the most of his late-season playing time, intercepting a pass in each of the final two games, and drew a bit of public praise from Ryan. He'll try to land a key reserve role again next summer.
- Age: 23 (24 on 9/19/16)
- 2015 earnings: $531K
- 2016 cap charge: $675K ($675K savings if cut)
- Playing time: 8 snaps in 7 games active (0.7% of total)
- Stats: 2 tackles (1 solo)
A sixth-round pick out of Ryan's favorite school, Steward looked like he was going to see playing time late in the year, but then succumbed to a back injury. The Bills like his athleticism, but durability is a concern.
- Age: 26 (27 on 12/28/16)
- 2015 earnings: $172K
- 2016 cap charge: $675K ($675K savings if cut)
- Playing time: 32 snaps in 5 games active (2.9% of total)
- Stats: 4 tackles (3 solo)
Signed late in the exhibition season as an injury fill-in, Reddick impressed quickly, and spent most of the season on the practice squad. He appeared in a handful of games late in the year.
- Age: 26 (27 on 9/4/16)
- 2015 earnings: $1.54M
- 2016 cap charge: Unrestricted Free Agent
- Playing time: 731 snaps in 11 games active (67.0% of total)
- Stats: 59 tackles (42 solo), 1 sack, 3 PD
In the 11 games he was healthy, it can be argued that Bradham was miscast as a true inside linebacker. If you have to shoehorn Bradham into one position, a weak-side linebacker is his best fit, and while that's what Bradham was in 2015, the Bills did not fully utilize his considerable skill set. Bradham is an excellent blitzer, but was not often asked to do so when healthy, and some of his immense athletic talents were muted by the role he was asked to play. When Bradham was injured for the final five games of the season, however, Buffalo's linebacker play suffered dramatically - but that may not be reason enough to bring him back (although that is still on the table). Bradham himself may seek greener pastures in free agency, targeting a more basic defense that will more snugly suit his strengths.
- Age: 27 (28 on 4/27/16)
- 2015 earnings: $585K
- 2016 cap charge: Restricted Free Agent
- Playing time: Spent the 2015 season on IR (ACL tear)
Powell started off his first training camp in Ryan's defense with a bang, quickly earning public praise from the head coach. But he was injured during a special teams drill early in camp, and missed the entire season as a result. There seems to be a strong possibility that the Bills will bring the RFA back into the fold to see if he can push for a significant role in 2016.
Where do we even start? It seems more likely than not that Lawson will stick, even if the front office views his contract as a bit rich. Brown will still be around, too, but it's anyone's guess as to how willing the coaches are to commit to another full season's worth of playing him on an every-down basis. Bradham might be the type of free agent worth keeping around, but maybe not at the level of cash that another team could offer him in a defense more suited to his talents. The depth here is intriguing, but highly unproven. Buffalo clearly has to address this position in the offseason, but this could be a spot that sees minor tweaks, and it could also be a spot that sees a near-complete renovation. With limited cap resources at their disposal and bigger fish to fry in free agency, the Bills might take the conservative route and try to develop the talent on hand, rather than blowing the whole thing up.