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Buffalo Bills training camp roster preview: Linebackers

We continue our look at the roster heading into training camp with the linebackers.

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

The Buffalo Bills had several choices to make at the linebacker position this offseason from re-signing a key piece, to extending another, keeping a veteran, and overhauling the depth. The net result was a group that largely is going to look the same on the field, though. There’s a lot to get to in our State of the Bills Roster series heading into training camp at the linebacker position.

Matt Milano

Contract status for 2021: Signed a four-year, $41.5 million deal this offseason ($7.8 million cap hit, $20 million dead cap)
Age: 26 (27 on 7/28/2021)
2020 Playing time: Ten games (five starts), 335 defensive snaps (31.28 percent), 15 ST snaps (3.38 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 45 tackles, four TFLs, nine quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one interception

Milano is a great coverage linebacker and he’s constantly around the ball. Despite an injury history that’s less than stellar, he re-signed with the Bills on a huge deal that was short of market setting. It was a great deal for Buffalo and Milano doesn’t have to worry about the injury bug cutting out his earning potential anymore. He will continue to be a leader on the defensive side of the ball as a player who does everything from blitzing to run-stopping to covering the middle zone of the field.

Tremaine Edmunds

Contract status for 2021: Signed; fourth year of rookie contract (fifth year picked up this offseason); cap hit $4,028,037, which is fully guaranteed
Age: Turned 23 on 5/2/2021
2020 Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 911 defensive snaps (85.06 percent), 69 special teams (ST) snaps (15.54 percent)
Key 2020 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 last season, finishing second on the team in tackles while playing one fewer game than the leader, safety Jordan Poyer. Early on, 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 picked up his fifth-year option in May so they have two more years to get a look at him before he hit the open market.

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)
2020 Playing time: 16 games (11 starts), 652 defensive snaps (60.88 percent), 147 ST snaps (33.11 percent)
Key 2020 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.

Tyrel Dodson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of rookie contract ($782,000 cap hit, $2,000 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: Turned 23 on 6/25/2021
2020 Playing time: Ten games (two starts), 172 defensive snaps (16.06 percent), 138 ST snaps (31.08 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 22 tackles, two TFLs, one sack, two pass breakups

Dodson showed some promise when filling in for both Edmunds and Milano in 2020, 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 a one-year extension this offseason so two years left on his deal ($2.95 million cap hit; $3.35 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 28 (29 12/22/2021)
2020 Playing time: 16 games, 342 ST snaps (77.03 percent), 72 defensive snaps (6.72 percent)
Key 2020 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 saved cap space by tacking on an extra year to his deal this offseason.

Andre Smith

Contract status for 2021: Signed a two-year veteran minimum deal this offseason ($1.128 million cap hit, $50,000 dead cap if cut)
Age: Turned 24 on 4/20/2021
2020 Playing time: 12 games, 215 ST snaps (48.42 percent), 47 defensive snaps (4.39 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: Nine tackles, one TFL, one pass breakup

The 23-year-old backer was one of the team’s top players on special teams in terms of snaps played. It makes sense that the Bills would bring him back on a cheap deal. He will have a tougher time making the roster this year because of the other linebacker depth the team brought it.

Mike Bell

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $660,000 this offseason ($0 guaranteed money)
Age: 24 on 12/12/2021
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 statistics: N/A

Bell spent parts of the 2019 and 2020 offseasons with the Bills but has never made the roster or practice squad. A safety who tested horribly at the 2019 NFL Combine, he went undrafted and has been transitioning to linebacker ever since. He had great tape at Fresno State but has a steep curve to the practice squad at a position he’s never played in a real game.

Tyrell Adams

Contract status for 2021:
Age: Turned 29 on 4/11/21
2020 Playing time: 16 games (12 starts) for Houston Texans; 812 defensive snaps (73.29 percent) and 122 special teams snaps (27.42 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 125 tackles, 4 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 sacks for the Texans

A successful season with the Houston Texans didn’t translate to even a medium-sized contract for the journeyman, who has spent time with seven different NFL teams. Every single stat in his stat line was far and a away a career high. He’s likely to be a seasoned reserve who can step in and play as well as a special teams player for the Bills as the sixth LB, replacing the departed Del’Shawn Phillips.

Marquel Lee

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year deal this offseason for $970,000 ($25,000 guaranteed)
Age: 24 (25 on 10/21/21)
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 statistics: N/A

A player who could potentially see the back end of the roster as a special teamer and veteran insurance, Lee still has some work to do to get there. He has experience, and has started 19 games for the Oakland Raiders from 2017 to 2019. He spent 2020 sidelined after dealing with an injury during the entire offseason.

Joe Giles-Harris

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $850,000 contract this offseason ($0 guaranteed)
Age: Turned 24 on 4/1/21
2020 Playing time: 9 games (3 starts) for Jacksonville Jaguars; 204 defensive snaps (18.20%) and 170 special teams snaps (38.46%)
Key 2020 statistics: 23 tackles, 1 sack for Jacksonville

Giles-Harris comes from Jacksonville, where he played a fair amount of snaps after being undrafted in 2019. With a change of the coaching staff, the Jaguars released him in May. He’s another guy that can fight for the back end of the roster and has NFL experience.

Players who left this offseason

Milano and Edmunds are going to get the lion’s share of snaps with Klein as the top backup and Matakevich as a lock in a special teams role. That likely leaves two open spots for the other six players. All of them have experience on NFL rosters, which makes it even more fascinating. The Bills have done a great job building depth.

Dodson has been in the system and shown good coverage ability, which probably gives him the inside track to a job and Adams had a great year in 2020 but can it translate to Buffalo? Maybe one of the guys gets dealt for a conditional late-round draft choice during the preseason if there’s an injury somewhere, but the Bills are going to be releasing NFL-caliber talent at the linebacker position this August.

With Milano and Edmunds under contract together for two more guaranteed years, perhaps the biggest question that needs to be answered this season is whether or not Edmunds is worth a big-money, long-term deal.