Last offseason, the Bills signed a versatile, veteran linebacker expecting him to serve as the third linebacker in “base” packages. Given that most teams play nickel more often than their “base” defense in the modern NFL, that base term is a little misleading. However, the thought process was clear: they had a player who could come in to help on run downs.
What actually transpired in the early going wasn’t exactly what the team planned. As a result, that veteran was exposed early because he was asked to play more than expected, and he was also asked to try and do things that didn’t suit his strengths. Once he settled in and some teammates returned from injury, he played much better.
In today’s installment of our “90 players in 90 days” series, we profile that veteran linebacker.
Name: A.J. Klein
Height/Weight: 6’1” 240 lbs
Age: 29 (30 on 7/30/2021)
College: Iowa State
Acquired: Signed with Bills on 3/27/2020
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Klein enters the second year of his three-year contract this season. For 2021, the veteran carries a salary cap hit of $6.4 million. Buffalo is responsible for a dead-cap charge of $5.6 million if he is released.
2020 Recap: Klein signed on to be the third linebacker in terms of usage behind Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, which would have been the ideal role given Klein’s limitations in coverage. So of course both Edmunds and Milano were injured in the first game, leaving Klein the most familiar linebacker with head coach Sean McDermott’s preferred defensive scheme given their time together with Carolina. Last offseason, coaches touted Klein as a player who could play all three linebacker spots, but I’m sure they didn’t want that plan to come to fruition. As a result, Klein struggled in the early going, as he looked out of place and out of sorts running as a near-every down linebacker. Ultimately, Klein found his footing and assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier found the ideal way to use him, as Klein ended up leading the team in sacks thanks to a monster middle of the season. In all, Klein totaled 75 tackles—good for fourth on the team—to go with five sacks, five tackles-for-loss, nine quarterback hits, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles, and four pass breakups. He was also a major contributor on special teams, appearing on 148 snaps, good for 12th on the squad.
Positional outlook: Klein finds himself in the midst of what should be the same top four at his position, with Edmunds, Milano, and Tyler Matakevich all essentially locked in to the 2021 roster with him. Andre Smith and Tyrel Dodson also return. Mike Bell, Tyrell Adams, Joe Giles-Harris, and Marquel Lee round out the group.
2021 Offseason: Klein is healthy and has participated in OTAs.
2021 Season outlook: Given Buffalo’s propensity for nickel defenses, Klein should see fewer snaps this season than he did last year provided that Edmunds and Milano can stay healthy. That should allow Frazier and McDermott to deploy him more as a pass rusher a la Lorenzo Alexander rather than having him drop into coverage, where he looked like a fish out of water last season. Klein is a pro’s pro—a hard-nosed player who’s going to come in, quietly do what’s asked of him, and then go to practice the next day. Hopefully, with better luck and good positional health, the Bills can use him as they intended when he originally signed.