The Buffalo Bills let go of the linebacker who led the NFL in tackles in 2017. Preston Brown headed to the Cincinnati Bengals because Buffalo wanted a player ready to make more of an impact. They kept their second first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and then moved up on draft day to select a teenage linebacker capable of doing just that.
Here is a look at the linebacker corps, which will feature starters on both ends of their careers.
- Contract status: signed a four-year rookie deal worth $12,659,544 this offseason ($2,301,735 cap hit)
- Age: Turned 20 on 5/19/18
- Key 2017 statistics: 108 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 2 passes defended for Virginia Tech
Edmunds was selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft to be the centerpiece of head coach Sean McDermott’s defense. He’s ultra-talented, but he just turned 20 years old this offseason and is still raw. That might be even better. The coaches can mold him into exactly the player they want him to be, and he can be in the middle of Buffalo’s defense for years to come. He’s the starting middle linebacker. The only question is what will his growing pains be?
- Contract status: signed; $3.4 million cap hit ($2.85 million cap savings if post-6/1 cut)
- Age: Turned 35 on 5/31/18
- 2017 playing time: 672 snaps (60.65% of defensive snaps), 251 ST snaps (57.44%)
- Key 2017 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 in 2017, 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.
With his hefty cap hit, Alexander could find himself on the outside looking in at cutdown time as a salary cap move. He could also be heavily relied upon to be in the right place at the right time on up to 40% of the team’s snaps. We’ll have to see if he’s lost a step.
- Contract status: signed; $620,376 cap hit ($424,246 cap savings if cut)
- Age: Will turn 23 on 7/28/18
- 2017 Playing time: 450 snaps (40.61 of defensive snaps), 226 ST snaps (51.72%)
- Key 2017 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.
His burst and anticipation in the run game allowed for some solid penetration plays, and we 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.
- Contract status: signed; $593,449 cap hit ($478,099 cap savings if cut)
- Age: Will turn 24 on 12/16/18
- 2017 Playing time: 13 snaps (1.17% of defensive snaps), 256 ST snaps (58.58%)
- Key 2017 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.
- Contract status: signed; $555,000 cap hit (no guaranteed money)
- Age: Turned 28 on 7/18/18
- 2017 Playing time: 8 snaps (.72% of defensive snaps), 285 ST snaps (65.22%)
- Key 2017 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 likely that he is retained.
- Contract status: signed a one-year deal, $1 million contract ($720,000 cap hit)
- Age: Will turn 31 on 8/10/18
- 2017 Playing time: 569 snaps (51.35 of defensive snaps), 96 ST snaps (21.97%)
- Key 2017 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.
Humber was re-signed as cheap veteran depth. He is battling for a roster spot.
- Contract status: signed a two-year deal, $3 million contract this offseason ($1.475 million cap hit)
- Age: Will turn 28 on 9/2/18
- 2017 Playing time: 91 snaps (8.15% of defensive total), 387 snaps (82.34% of special teams total) for New York Jets
- Key 2017 statistics: 8 tackles for the Jets
Stanford spent most of his time on the field as a special teamer in 2017. That might be an understatement. He played more than 82% of New Jersey’s special teams snaps last year, a number that dwarfs anyone on Buffalo’s roster in that time frame. He’s likely destined for that role in Buffalo as well, which should put guys like Tanner Vallejo and Deon Lacey on notice.
- Contract status: signed a two-year, $1.2 million contract this offseason ($555,000 million cap hit)
- Age: Will turn 23 on 8/6/18
- 2017 Playing time: 44 snaps (4.23% of defensive snaps), 208 snaps (48.60% of special teams snaps) for Oakland Raiders
- Key 2017 statistics: 7 tackles for Raiders
Still young, Woodson-Luster is a former undrafted free agent signing of the Raiders in 2017. He was waived by Oakland in final cuts but re-signed a couple days later, and he spent the majority of the season on their roster as a special teamer. He was released on December 20th and finished the year on the Bills’ practice squad.
- Contract status: signed a contract on July 24th, details unavailable
- Age: Will turn 29 on 7/7/18
- 2017 Playing time: 292 snaps (26.50% of defensive snaps), 5 snaps (1.11% of special teams snaps) for New York Giants
- Key 2017 statistics: 32 tackles, 2 passes defended for Giants
Robinson missed the end of the 2017 season with a quad injury, but he brings experience to the backups with 30 career NFL starts (three in six games a year ago). Even though he was a late free agent add, he could definitely make the roster as the team’s primary linebacker backup. He played primarily at weakside linebacker, so it would surprise us if he replaced Alexander on the strong side. He has experience at both outside and inside linebacker, however, making him an ideal backup due to his versatility.
- Contract status: signed a standard UDFA contract for three years, $1.71 million ($480,000 cap hit)
- Age: Will turn 25 on 12/23/18
- Key 2017 statistics: 43 tackles, 6 sacks for LSU
Thompson is an old UDFA after two season-ending injuries at LSU (2014 and 2016), where he started his career as a safety. His coverage skills are intriguing, and he could be destined for that role as a Big Nickel prospect instead of weakside linebacker. He’ll need to make the team as a special teams player.
With Edmunds and Milano cemented as two starting linebackers, and the linebackers destined to see the most snaps, everything else is up in the air. Alexander’s role was diminished as the year went on as the team favored the nickel defense more and more. If Milano is installed as the team’s Big Nickel linebacker/DB hybrid, it could mean a spot for newly-signed Robinson in the rotation. If Buffalo wants to keep Milano at LB, it will mean one less spot for a player like Robinson.
Alexander and the rest of the linebackers on the list play a ton of special teams snaps, so many of these battles could be decided by special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, not by defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
How many linebackers will they keep, and which ones will take over those special teams roles? It’s the second-biggest question facing the group. The biggest question is the immediate impact of Edmunds. Can he step in and impress immediately?