The Buffalo Bills entered the 2018 season with plenty of questions at the linebacker position. They had a second-year player aiming to build on a solid rookie season. They had a 20-year-old rookie manning the middle linebacker position. And they also had a wily veteran thought by many to be too old to play a majority of the snaps on defense, too slow to cover players, and too ill a fit at the strong side linebacker position to be a three-down player in the modern NFL.
Heading into the 2019 season, the Bills have far fewer questions at the position, thanks mostly to the strong campaigns by the aforementioned trio of starters. If the Bills can add depth and a pipeline player to replace that veteran linchpin, then they can make a strong positional group even stronger.
In our latest look at the state of the Bills roster, we look at the linebackers—a group where little turnover is expected heading into next season.
- Contract status for 2019: Signed; $3 million cap hit ($3 million dead cap if cut)
- Age: 35 (36 on 5/31/19)
- Playing time: 16 games (8 starts), 629 snaps(62.03% of defensive total), 171 ST snaps (38.95%)
- Key statistics: 74 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 10 QB hits, 6.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered
The ageless veteran keeps on playing at a high level. Alexander has been an invaluable leader throughout his time in Buffalo, and general manager Brandon Beane made re-signing him a priority this off-season. Alexander should not be counted out, though the Bills must find a player to develop behind him as a replacement for the 2020 season. Limiting Alexander’s snaps, even if only a bit, could help the veteran to stay fresh and maintain maximum effectiveness. It could also help to prepare his replacement, whomever that may be.
- Contract status for 2019: Signed; $2,877,169 cap hit ($10,357,809 dead cap if cut)
- Age: 20 (21 on 5/2/19)
- Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 926 snaps (91.32% of defensive total), 71 ST snaps (16.17%)
- Key statistics: 121 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 7 QB hits, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 12 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced
The youngest player in the NFL had a tremendous responsibility this season, serving as the Bills’ defensive play-caller and “quarterback” of the defense as the team’s middle linebacker. He rarely came off the field, missing time due to a concussion suffered against the New England Patriots in October, but otherwise was on the field at all times. With 121 total tackles, he was tied with three other players for twelfth in the league in that category. His 12 pass breakups were second among linebackers. If his rookie year is any indication, the second of Buffalo’s first-round draft choices in 2018 has a tremendous future ahead of him.
- Contract status for 2019: Signed; $710,376 cap hit ($130,754 dead cap if cut)
- Age: 24 (25 on 7/28/19)
- Playing time: 13 games (13 starts), 741 snaps (73.08% of defensive snaps), 142 ST snaps (32.35%)
- Key statistics: 78 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3 QB hits, 1 sack, 3 interceptions, 7 passes defended, 3 fumbles recovered
Buffalo’s ball-hawking second-year man was having a fantastic season through 13 games, but a broken leg ended his year prematurely. Milano is undersized, but he consistently proves the old cliche that it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. He is a solid run-stuffer who is especially adept at penetrating rush lanes. He is a strong cover man, able to lock down running backs and tight ends alike. He should be ready for the start of training camp, and he will hopefully pick up right where he left off in 2018.
- Contract status for 2019: Signed; $1.525 million cap hit ($175,000 dead cap if cut)
- Age: 28 (29 on 9/2/19)
- Playing time: 13 games (1 start), 89 snaps (8.78% of defensive total), 225 ST snaps (51.25%)
- Key statistics: 15 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 sack, 1 fumble forced, 1 pass defended
The veteran filled in at middle linebacker for Edmunds in one game this season, a 41-9 loss against the Chicago Bears. Stanford is primarily a special teams player, and he is solid veteran depth. However, if the Bills feel the need to go younger at the position, he could be the odd man out at the position.
- Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
- Age: 25 (26 on 12/23/19)
- Playing time: 6 games (1 start), 80 snaps (7.89% of defensive total), 104 ST snaps (23.69%)
- Key statistics: 14 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble
Thompson joined the Bills as an undrafted free agent this year. He is a nice athlete who adds value on special teams, but he struggled at the point of attack against the run in his time filling in for Milano late this season. He will be on the bubble next year.
- Contract status for 2019: Unsigned; ERFA (per Buffalo News)
- Age: 28 (29 on 7/18/19)
- Playing time: 16 games (0 starts), 14 snaps (1.38% of defensive total), 299 ST snaps (68.11%)
- Key statistics: 7 tackles
While Lacey doesn’t exactly fill up the stats line, he does play more on special teams than any other person on Buffalo’s roster. As an exclusive-rights free agent (one that I admittedly missed earlier this off-season, as Spotrac doesn’t have him listed as such), the Bills would be wise to bring him back next season.
The Bills are set here in terms of the starting lineup heading into 2019. Alexander, Edmunds, and Milano will all reprise their roles barring injury or an unforeseen addition. The team would certainly do well to add a future replacement for Alexander through the draft, which means that one of the three players the team has in reserve could be in jeopardy. With Lacey seeing more special teams snaps than any other Buffalo player in both 2017 and 2018, it’s unlikely that he is the odd man out. If the team decides to go young, they’ll keep Thompson and release Stanford, saving a touch under $1 million in the process. If the team wants to keep Stanford, then they could release Thompson and try to sign him to the practice squad, which is the more likely scenario given Stanford’s versatility and Thompson’s struggles with an expanded role during December.
Whatever Buffalo decides to do, they are in a favorable position here. They have their starters, they have their special teams options, but best of all, they have their leader. With Kyle Williams retiring, that final point makes a world of difference.