Lorenzo Alexander was more than just a linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. On the field, he played as an off-ball linebacker, an edge rusher, and rushed from the inside of the defensive line group. He was present and accounted for in the linebacker AND defensive line meeting rooms.
Off the field, the player affectionately referred to as “Zo” was an ambassador for the team in the local community and for the city to the national audience. He is beloved by Bills Mafia. His story of coming into the league as a defensive lineman at 290 lbs, reshaping his body and career and finding a home on special teams before coming to Buffalo and having the most productive years of his career in his twilight? It is a story that will be told for years.
If you’re the Buffalo Bills, how do you best go about replacing a player that unique in both role and leadership?
Short answer? You don’t.
On the field, finding a player with that particular skill set in the draft is notably difficult. Asking a rookie to take on the responsibilities that were previously reserved for Alexander is foolhardy and asking for paralysis by analysis. Players with that skill set don’t tend to hit the free-agent market. So the role is unlikely to be filled by a singular player for those reasons.
Off the field, the leadership void is present, but the team is aware of this and makes leadership a priority in their roster-building strategy. Younger players like Tremaine Edmunds and Josh Allen will continue growing into those roles.
So if the on-field and off-field roles don’t get replaced one-to-one with an individual player, how does the team replace Lorenzo Alexander specifically at linebacker?
First off, it should be noted that nickel is the predominate defensive personnel grouping in the NFL, and in 2020 the Bills were no exception. Buffalo spend roughly 75% of their defensive snaps in nickel, per Buffalo Rumblings’ own Jeff Kantrowski. That means it’s important not to over-value the third linebacker position to the point where significant and unbalanced resources are spent on it. I am of the opinion that Buffalo should look in-house for that replacement. The Bills have three in-house options at the position that we should evaluate for the potential spot.
A fifth-round pick in 2019, Joseph was one of my favorite draft picks in last year’s class. He was not given a real opportunity to have his athleticism tested by evaluators due to an injury he was dealing with during the lead-up to the draft and his stock wasn’t overly high due to it. His tape, however, showed an athletic and quick run-and-chase linebacker that I thought made a lot of sense backing up incumbent Matt Milano. What Joseph did not show on tape was the ability to consistently play into the line of scrimmage, quickly diagnose plays from the front side, take on and shed blocks, and finish. His skill set lends a lot more to being a linebacker on the back side of the formation where his athleticism and “see ball, get ball” play can be utilized to its utmost. I would not anticipate him replacing Lorenzo Alexander in base 4-3 looks.
Corey Thompson received positive buzz from the coaching staff during the 2019 offseason and was first man up to multiple linebacker positions, which would seem to indicate he’ll get an opportunity to step in and compete for Lorenzo Alexander’s vacant spot. Thompson is notably light for a linebacker (listed at 222 lbs) and lacks the length you’d like to see to engage and shed blockers, but I trust him to hold up in coverage and if the Bills are more worried about that trait than others, he could manage to grab a reasonable spot for himself in 2020.
Showing potential to play this position since coming out of college, Dodson shows good size (237 lbs) and movement ability (4.6 second 40-yard dash) to play the 10-15 snaps per game that may be required for a linebacker on the strong side of the defense. He showed power to disengage in college—a trait important to the role Alexander vacated. The Bills hung onto Dodson through his six-game suspension for domestic violence and he goes into this offseason with an opportunity to compete for a role.
If you let Dodson and Thompson fight it out for the third linebacker position in a base 4-3 look, it will allow the team to dedicate their draft and cash resources on positions that have greater impact on the game overall.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan for Buffalo Rumblings. You can follow me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!