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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Linebackers

Anchored by a pair of young studs, the middle level of Buffalo’s defense is in good shape

Wild Card Round - Buffalo Bills v Houston Texans Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are fortunate enough to have two of the league’s top young linebackers under contract this season. While one is a former first-round pick entering the third year of his rookie contract, the other is a former fifth-round pick who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. With the team also losing an important veteran mentor, this is a position where the stability of the past is currently in flux.

In our continuing look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we discuss the linebackers—a young group budding with potential stars.

Tremaine Edmunds

Contract status for 2020: Signed; third year of rookie deal ($3,452,608 cap hit; $7,480,640 dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 21 (22 on 5/2/2020)
Playing time: 16 games, 16 starts, 981 defensive snaps (94.5%), 61 ST snaps (14.7%)
Key statistics: 115 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 4 QB hits, 9 pass breakups, 1 interceptions, 1 safety

Edmunds has continued to develop into the stud general manager Brandon Beane and his staff thought he would be when they traded up to draft him in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. At only 21 years old, Edmunds is the first player in NFL history to record two seasons of at least 100 tackles prior to turning 22 years old. Yes, he sometimes misses keys in the run game, leading to overpursuit and some big runs. And yes, he sometimes hesitates to hit the hole, as well. However, his overall play and athleticism make him a true three-down linebacker, and his continued improvement bodes well for the defense overall. There has been much more good than bad with Edmunds, who is a perfect fit for the middle of head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defense. He’s a keeper.

Matt Milano

Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of rookie deal ($800,378 cap hit; $65,378 dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 7/28/2020)
Playing time: 15 games, 15 starts, 894 defensive snaps (86.3%), 112 ST snaps (27.1%)
Key statistics: 100 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 7 QB hits, 9 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovered

When he was drafted out of Boston College at No. 163 overall in 2017, many thought that he was destined to be a special-teams player and sub-package linebacker at best. However, his play has consistently exceeded his draft position, as Milano has established himself as one of the better young all-around linebackers in the NFL. He has increased his tackle total every year in the league, and he has also increased his number of pass breakups, which is indicative of his two best traits—Milano is tough enough to take on any ball carrier, and athletic enough to stick with running backs and tight ends in coverage. Spotrac calculates Milano’s value at a four-year deal worth a total of $52 million, an average of $13 million per year. Re-signing him should be a priority as early as this offseason.

Lorenzo Alexander

Contract status for 2020: Unrestricted free agent; announced retirement on 1/4/2020
Age: 36 (37 on 5/31/2020)
Playing time: 16 games, 7 starts, 495 defensive snaps (47.8%), 235 ST snaps (56.8%)
Key statistics: 50 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 9 QB hits, 9 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble

The venerable veteran rides off into the sunset having been part of two Bills playoff teams, a feat no player has been able to accomplish in twenty years. Alexander was a great find for the Bills when they signed him as a free agent prior to the 2016 season. He had a productive final year in the league, but his leadership will be missed far more than his actual on-field production. His versatility, however, will be difficult to replace, as he lined up as an off-the-ball linebacker and a defensive tackle, and he was a valuable contributor on special teams.

Julian Stanford

Contract status for 2020: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 29 (30 on 9/2/2020)
Playing time: 16 games, 0 starts, 57 defensive snaps (5.5%), 297 ST snaps (71.7%)
Key statistics: 3 tackles, 1 fumble recovery

Stanford has been a mainstay on Buffalo’s special teams for the last two years, but he is someone who I expect the team to allow to leave this spring. He took over the mantle of the team’s top special-teams player in terms of snap counts, a title held by Deon Lacey for each of the past two years. Even with that in mind, the Bills have enough talented young linebackers to replace Stanford.

Corey Thompson

Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of three-year contract ($660,000 cap hit; $0 dead money if released)
Age: 26 (27 on 12/23/2020)
Playing time: 12 games, 0 starts, 57 defensive snaps (5.5%), 188 ST snaps (45.4%)
Key statistics: 5 tackles, 1 tackle for loss

Thompson signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2018. While he was often injured during college, he has been productive in short spurts in the NFL. As a special-teams mainstay in his two seasons on the roster, Thompson already has a role for himself. With Lorenzo Alexander retiring, Thompson may even have the chance to expand his role; however, there will be plenty of competition for those defensive snaps.

Tyrel Dodson

Contract status for 2020: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/6/2020
Age: 21 (22 on 6/25/2020)
Playing time: N/A; spent season suspended (6 games) and on practice squad
Key statistics: N/A

Dodson had a rocky rookie season, as he spent six games serving a suspension for an arrest in May for domestic violence. In September, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, a deal which allowed for those domestic violence charges to be dropped if Dodson completed a diversion program successfully. Buffalo waived him after his suspension, then signed him to the practice squad after he cleared waivers.

Del’Shawn Phillips

Contract status for 2020: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/6/2020
Age: 23 (24 on 10/9/2020)
Playing time: N/A; spent season on practice squad
Key statistics: N/A

The rookie entered the league this year by signing with the Atlanta Falcons, but he was cut prior to the start of the season. Buffalo signed Phillips to the practice squad on October 29, where he remained for the whole year. In his final collegiate year at Illinois, Phillips had 95 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions, and 1.5 sacks. The 6’2” 230-lb linebacker will have the chance to compete for a roster spot next year.

Maurice Alexander

Contract status for 2020: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 28 (29 on 2/16/2020)
Playing time: 7 games, 0 starts, 52 defensive snaps (5%), 130 ST snaps (31.4%)
Key statistics: 8 tackles

A former safety, Alexander was used infrequently in sub packages prior to going on injured reserve with a knee/calf injury prior to Week 10. While his versatility is intriguing, and he was effective as a special-teams players, he isn’t someone whom the Bills should prioritize in re-signing.

Vosean Joseph

Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of rookie deal ($590,324 cap hit; $240,972 dead cap charge if cut)
Age: 22 (23 on 12/15/2020)
Playing time: N/A; spent season on injured reserve
Key statistics: N/A

The “worst” 2019 draft choice by default was Joseph, as he was unable to play in the regular season. Joseph went on injured reserve in September with a shoulder injury, effectively making his first NFL season a redshirt year. Joseph has incredible athleticism and a solid college resume, as he was a productive player at Florida. He can instantly slide in to replace some of Buffalo’s departed special-teams contributors, and he may even contribute on defense, as well.

Positional Outlook

The Bills would be wise to add some depth here, whether through the draft or through free agency, but they shouldn’t break the bank in doing so. Milano needs to be a priority re-signing. Since he and Edmunds are on the field for nearly all of Buffalo’s defensive plays, and the team spends quite a bit of time in nickel personnel, a third linebacker will be a part-time player at best. Between Joseph, Dodson, and Phillips, the Bills have a trio of young, athletic players who should be given a chance to compete. My guess is that Joseph ends up Buffalo’s replacement for Lorenzo Alexander, but don’t count out Corey Thompson, either. In any case, the Bills are solid here, but they should not pass up an opportunity at improvement if one presents itself.