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Buffalo Bills linebackers in need of improvement heading into 2018

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The Bills may need an overhaul of the entire group, and preferably sooner rather than later

The 2017 Buffalo Bills entered the season with major question marks at the linebacker position, and they head into the 2018 NFL offseason with many similar questions. With only four players under contract heading into next year, the Bills will obviously need to add players, and they will also need to decide whether or not to keep one of their best veteran leaders as he ages.

While a member of the Buffalo Bills led the NFL in tackles, and a late-round rookie made a big impact right away, the team’s linebackers seemed overwhelmed at times in coverage. The team was also gashed in the running game, which could be a product of sub-par play on the defensive linemen’s part, but is also indicative of a need to improve the linebacker spot to add a dynamic playmaker to the bunch.

For simplicity, I’ve combined both inside and outside linebackers in this look at the state of the Buffalo Bills’ roster. With only one inside linebacker even employed by the Bills in 2017, it would have made for a pretty brief analysis otherwise.

Lorenzo Alexander

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $3.4 million cap hit ($2.85 million cap savings if post-6/1 cut)
  • Age: 34 (35 on 5/31/18)
  • Playing time: 672 snaps (60.65% of defensive snaps), 251 ST snaps (57.44%)
  • Key statistics: 65 combined tackles, 3 sacks, one pass defensed, 3 fumbles forced

The “Lorax” is a phenomenal human being. He is well-respected throughout the NFL, and his leadership is invaluable to any team. With that said, his production dipped significantly this season, as he was a bit of a square peg in a round hole in the 4-3 zone-based scheme deployed by head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. After tallying 12.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl MVP award in 2016, he showed that he is definitely a better fit for the hybrid 3-4 scheme run by Buffalo’s former coaching staff.

Deciding whether or not to keep Alexander will be something with which general manager Brandon Beane will surely struggle. While a $3.4 million cap hit is reasonable for a rotational player, when that player is coming off a 3-sack season at a position that has evolved to necessitate athleticism and coverage ability that he does not have, it spells trouble for his roster spot. If I had to speculate, I’d assume that Alexander will be a cut this offseason, and if he does remain with the team, it will definitely be in a reduced role.

Matt Milano

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $620,376 cap hit ($424,246 cap savings if cut)
  • Age: 22 (23 on 7/28/18)
  • Playing time: 450 snaps (40.61 of defensive snaps), 226 ST snaps (51.72%)
  • Key statistics: 43 combined tackles, 1 interception, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble forced, 1 fumble recovered, 1 TD

The first of Buffalo’s fifth-round selections had a much better season than almost anyone could have anticipated. He contributed on both special teams and defense, and he made quite a few big plays, including a game-changing fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. He proved himself to be one of the better pass coverage linebackers around, settling into zones with ease. His athleticism allows him to run with tight ends, and his toughness keeps him fighting even when he’s guarding a larger player.

I expect that Milano will enter the 2018 season as a starter. Truthfully, he’s the only of Buffalo’s linebackers who I foresee having that designation. His burst and anticipation in the run game allowed for some solid penetration plays, and I expect that he’ll only continue to improve in his second year. It looks like the Bills found themselves a solid steal in round five.

Tanner Vallejo

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $593,449 cap hit ($478,099 cap savings if cut)
  • Age: 23 (24 on 12/16/18
  • Playing time: 13 snaps (1.17% of defensive snaps), 256 ST snaps (58.58%)
  • Key statistics: N/A

Buffalo’s final 2017 NFL Draft pick was a special teams player for his rookie season. He may not have had the statistics to show for it, but he was clearly a favorite of the coaching staff with that unit, as he logged nearly three-fifths of the team’s special teams snaps. This bodes well for his chances at a roster spot next season, but nothing is guaranteed for a sixth-rounder who exclusively plays special teams. He could be replaced, but it’s more likely that he’s retained as an inexpensive backup.

Deon Lacey

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $555,000 cap hit (no guaranteed money)
  • Age: 27 (28 on 7/18/18)
  • Playing time: 8 snaps (.72% of defensive snaps), 285 ST snaps (65.22%)
  • Key statistics: 1 tackle

Another special-teamer, Lacey played more special teams snaps for the Bills than anyone in 2017. This implies that he would have a solid hold on a roster spot for 2018, but again, if the Bills are serious about improving the position, they may look to add players who can contribute both on special teams and on defense. At such a small cap figure, it’s also likely that he is retained.

Preston Brown

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 25 (26 on 10/27/18)
  • Playing time: 1,098 snaps (99.1% of defensive snaps), 81 ST snaps (18.54%)
  • Key statistics: 144 combined tackles (NFL leader), 3 passes defensed

Most fans and experts expect the Bills to try to upgrade the middle linebacker position, which means allowing their 2014 third-round pick to leave in free agency. Brown was a liability in coverage this season, failing to adequately cover space against tight ends and struggling to react to play-action. He is a sound thumper, however, and he led the NFL in combined tackles with 144.

While Brown certainly isn’t perfect, Bills fans should be careful what they wish for in replacing him. There isn’t an abundance of talent among the free agent middle linebackers, and replacing someone who has played more snaps than any Buffalo defender since 2014 will not an easy task.

Ramon Humber

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 30 (31 on 8/10/18)
  • Playing time: 569 snaps (51.35 of defensive snaps), 96 ST snaps (21.97%)
  • Key statistics: 83 combined tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble forced, 1 pass defensed

Humber began the season as a starting linebacker. Then, he was injured against the Atlanta Falcons, causing him to miss the team’s next three games. While he was out, Matt Milano played quite well, but Sean McDermott inserted Humber back into the starting lineup anyway. Humber continued to start until the Bills’ snowy victory over the Indianapolis Colts, when McDermott went back to Milano.

I think it’s unlikely that Humber will be back, as his age and weaknesses as a cover linebacker are too much for him to overcome. The Bills will be looking to upgrade here, and Humber is someone they can do without in 2018.

Offseason Outlook

The Bills need a quick infusion of talent at the linebacker position, as it was often the middle of the field that was exploited in both the passing game and the running game this season. If Milano is penciled in as a starter, that leaves at least two positions to be filled, preferably by ‘backers who can both play zone coverage and play solidly against the run.

The best available free agents, arguably, are former Buffalo Bills. Nigel Bradham may not have fit in Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 defense, but he was phenomenal in Jim Schwartz’s attacking 4-3. He is a free agent, and while it’s unlikely that he leaves the Philadelphia Eagles (where Schwartz is once again his defensive coordinator for now), he would certainly fill a gaping hole in his old digs. The same could be said of Zach Brown, who manned the middle linebacker spot for Buffalo in 2016. Other free agent options include Demario Davis, Jon Bostic, Anthony Hitchens, and Avery Williamson.

The Bills will need to draft at least one linebacker, and the guy who feels like the most obvious target is Iowa’s Josey Jewell. He’s been a tackling machine and he has solid athleticism; also, he’s a high-character senior, which was something the Bills prioritized last year. While adding Georgia’s Roquan Smith would be nice, it’s almost impossible to think that he’ll slide down the draft board far enough for Buffalo to grab him, and if the Bills are trading up, it hopefully isn’t for a linebacker.

Buffalo should look to add at least two bodies, if not more, to solidify the position and give them the talent infusion that they need at the second level of their defense. I expect that there will be a lot of new faces playing linebacker for the 2018 Buffalo Bills.