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Buffalo Bills training camp battles: Linebacker depth

Lots and lots of NFL experience behind the starters at linebacker.

The Buffalo Bills kick off training camp soon and, in preparation, we are taking a look at the biggest battles on the board. Today we look past the starting three linebackers to the depth options at the position.

Tyrel Dodson vs Andre Smith vs Tyrell Adams vs Marquel Lee vs Joe Giles-Harris

With apologies to Mike Bell, this competition is stacked with players with NFL experience. First, let’s set the stage. The Bills are absolutely keeping Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, A.J. Klein, and Tyler Matakevich at the position due to contractual obligations. Every year they’ve been together, head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have kept six linebackers. So let’s assume here that only two of these guys are going to make the team.

Last year, it was Tyrel Dodson and the departed Del’Shawn Phillips who made the team, with Andre Smith, Vosean Joseph, and Corey Thompson as the cuts. It was another year with stiff competition for those backup slots.

Adams has the best NFL season out of the group. In 2020, he exploded with 125 tackles, four passes defended, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and two sacks for the Houston Texans. It was his first season as a starter in the NFL and he lived up to it. He also has special teams value, and played significant roles on special teams units prior to 2020. His athletic testing numbers are also good.

Dodson played ten games for the Bills last season as a primary backup option when Milano and Edmunds were hurt and acquitted himself admirably for never having been in an NFL game before. He made the final roster ahead of Smith, who ultimately ended up being elevated to the active roster when Phillips suffered a series of injuries. As the season wore on, however, Smith began to out-snap Dodson on defense. In Week 17, it was 21 to two in favor of Smith. In Week 16, Smith got two snaps and Dodson zero. In Week 15, it was three to zero. Based on that data, we should give the nod to Smith.

Lee spent the 2020 season out of football after an injury in late 2019. He missed camp with the Raiders on the PUP list and was waived on August 3rd with a failed physical. Prior to that he was a solid option at linebacker, with 68 tackles and 3 pass knockdowns in 2018 with the Raiders. That season he started ten games for them but injuries have derailed his upward trajectory.

Giles-Harris has had a harder time making an NFL roster, bouncing up and down from the practice squad to the 53-man squad with the Jaguars last season and being released this offseason.

Obviously, availability is the best ability. If any of these guys suffer an injury, it’s going to impact their ability to make the team. With so much experience, athleticism, and depth here, that’s probably going to be what tips the scales even if a guy doesn’t miss time. Playing through a tweaked muscle will be just as harmful as sitting in the training room because of one.

I’m predicting Adams as the primary reserve and Smith as the last linebacker on the roster. Dodson heads to the practice squad along with Lee or Harris (my guess is Lee). It’s tempting to place the younger Dodson ahead of Adams because of his familiarity with the system, but Adams is one of those seasoned veterans with work in a lot of systems over the years. Presumably he has what it takes between the ears to get caught up by the end of August.