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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: Linebackers

We start our offseason look at the Bills’ roster with arguably the biggest decision the team has to make

Divisional Round - Baltimore Ravens v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Of all the years where I’ve written about the State of the Buffalo Bills roster, this is the latest I have begun the series. Obviously, that’s because the Bills had an outstanding season, one that saw them win 13 regular-season games and two playoff games en route to an AFC Championship Game appearance.

But it still feels like I’m starting a little early.

The Bills felt like a team of destiny for a time, down to the fact that their old tormentor, Tom Brady, qualified for his tenth Super Bowl a mere hour before the Bills kicked off against the Kansas City Chiefs. Rather than having the opportunity to vanquish their longtime foe, they were thoroughly schooled by the defending champs, as Kansas City beat them 38-24.

Now, rather than Super Bowl prep, we move on to offseason discussions, the first of which centers on a positional group that has plenty of young talent and plenty of question marks. In our first look at the State of the Bills roster, we examine the linebacker group.

Tremaine Edmunds

Contract status for 2021: Signed; fourth year of rookie contract (four-year deal with fifth-year option); cap hit $4,028,037, which is fully guaranteed
Age: 22 (23 on 5/2/2021)
Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 911 defensive snaps (85.06 percent), 69 special teams (ST) snaps (15.54 percent)
Key statistics: 119 tackles, three pass breakups, two sacks, four tackles-for-loss (TFL), three quarterback hits

Edmunds has had a fairly decorated start to his professional career, and it’s hard to believe that he’s still just 22 years old. He made his second Pro Bowl this season, finishing second on the team in tackles while playing one fewer game than the leader, safety Jordan Poyer. Early on this year, Edmunds was nursing a shoulder injury, and while he did miss a game for that reason, it appears that he tried to gut it out by coming back too early, and his effectiveness was compromised for much of the first half of the year. He settled in nicely after the bye week, as did the rest of the Bills’ stop unit. Edmunds is a rare athlete with the ability to play coverage in both man and zone over the middle, and he’s shown himself to be an adept blitzer when the team decides to use him that way. Buffalo has to decide on whether or not to exercise his fifth-year option by May.

A.J. Klein

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of three-year deal ($6.4 million cap hit; $4 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 7/30/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (11 starts), 652 defensive snaps (60.88 percent), 147 ST snaps (33.11 percent)
Key statistics: 75 tackles, five TFLs, five sacks, nine quarterback hits, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles, four pass breakups

The veteran free-agent signing was thrust into a larger role than intended early in the season, as injuries to both Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano left him exposed in coverage far too often—which is to say, ever, because Klein is not someone you want in coverage. As a result, he struggled a bit in the early going of the season. However, as Edmunds regained his health, the Bills and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier found a groove with Klein’s usage, making sure he was in position to blitz often. Klein ended up tying for the team lead in sacks thanks to a midseason surge. He also led all Bills linebackers in pass breakups, though he did allow 73 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. He’s an expensive insurance policy at the position, but he proved to be worth it this year, adjusting to a new-old defense (he played under head coach Sean McDermott with the Carolina Panthers) in a pandemic-altered season.

Matt Milano

Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 26 (27 on 7/28/2021)
Playing time: Ten games (five starts), 335 defensive snaps (31.28 percent), 15 ST snaps (3.38 percent)
Key statistics: 45 tackles, four TFLs, nine quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one interception

Arguably the most important free-agent decision the Bills have to make concerns Milano, who has vastly outplayed his rookie deal as a fifth-round choice and never once complained about it. Milano picked a bad year to miss games due to injury, as he spent time off the field thanks to a pectoral injury and a hamstring issue, limiting him to just ten regular-season games and the Bills’ three playoff contests. However, the difference in Buffalo’s defense with him on the field versus the alternative—anyone else in his role—is obvious to those paying attention. Milano is a solid blitzer, a strong coverage player in both man and zone, and an ideal 21st-century NFL linebacker. He’ll command a hefty salary.

Tyrel Dodson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of rookie contract ($782,000 cap hit, $2,000 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 22 (23 on 6/25/2021)
Playing time: Ten games (two starts), 172 defensive snaps (16.06 percent), 138 ST snaps (31.08 percent)
Key statistics: 22 tackles, two TFLs, one sack, two pass breakups

Dodson showed some promise when filling in for both Edmunds and Milano this year, though he ultimately was unable to match what those two do. That’s a tough standard to match, so I’m not holding it against him—there aren’t many people with the athleticism of Milano and Edmunds on the planet, never mind the NFL—but it shows the drop-off from the two top dogs to their backups. Dodson was a valued special teams contributor throughout the year, as well, but he was a healthy scratch throughout the team’s playoff run.

Tyler Matakevich

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year deal ($3.7 million cap hit; $350,000 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 28 (29 12/22/2021)
Playing time: 16 games, 342 ST snaps (77.03 percent), 72 defensive snaps (6.72 percent)
Key statistics: 23 tackles, two pass breakups

The veteran specialist came to Buffalo hoping for a shot at playing on defense, and even though the team suffered plenty of injuries at the position, Matakevich’s role on defense was limited to blowouts. He’s a dynamic special teams presence who led the Bills in snaps in the “third phase.” The team can save some cap space by releasing him, but given the success the Bills had this year on special teams, that’s unlikely.

Andre Smith

Contract status for 2021: Restricted free agent (original-round tender approximately $2.24 million)
Age: 23 (24 on 4/20/2021)
Playing time: 12 games, 215 ST snaps (48.42 percent), 47 defensive snaps (4.39 percent)
Key statistics: Nine tackles, one TFL, one pass breakup

As a restricted free agent, Buffalo has the right of first refusal on Smith. Are they going to offer him a tender at $2.24 million? Absolutely not. It’s likely, though, that the Bills look to bring him back on a cheaper deal, as the 23-year-old backer was one of the team’s top players on special teams in terms of snaps played.

Del’Shawn Phillips

Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 24 (25 on 10/9/2021)
Playing time: Two games, 14 ST snaps (3.15 percent)
Key statistics: None

Phillips made the initial 53-man roster, but he was injured in the season opener against the New York Jets while covering kicks. He was out until Buffalo’s matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, when he was injured again while covering kicks. In each game, he managed to play seven snaps.

Darron Lee

Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 26 (27 on 10/18/2021)
Playing time: Two games, 31 ST snaps
Key statistics: One tackle

A former first-round draft choice of the Jets, Lee was signed to the practice squad in the middle of the season while Milano was out and Edmunds was dealing with his shoulder injury. He’s a plus athlete, but the team never used him on defense, which isn’t surprising given the circumstances of the season. He appeared in games against the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers. As an unsigned member of the practice squad, Lee becomes an unrestricted free agent.

It’s a near-certainty that the Bills will exercise the fifth-year option on Edmunds’s rookie contract, ensuring that the quarterback of their defense will remain with the club through his age-24 season. Klein is almost certain to stick around, as is Dodson. I’d imagine that the team will keep Matakevich, though he’s a dark-horse cap casualty if the team runs into problems.

The real decision centers on Milano. It’s been estimated by multiple sources (Spotrac, for one, as well as our own Matt Warren) that he’s going to command somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million per season. Given the success of the defense with him versus their struggles without him, I’m inclined to believe that the team tries to come to terms with him on an extension that keeps Milano in Buffalo. Otherwise, they’ll be looking to add a linebacker through the draft to fill a specific role, with Klein serving as the thumper and a rookie coming in for coverage situations. They could also hope that Lee, who is a solid athlete but hasn’t had a very good pro career, could step in and shine in a more specific role.

Milano should be Buffalo’s top-priority in-house free agent. Losing him turns a defensive strength into a position of need, and with plenty of other places where the Bills need to commit resources in order to improve, they can’t afford to create new holes. General manager Brandon Beane and Milano’s agent will have each other on speed dial over the next few weeks.