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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Linebackers

The top two are set. Then what?

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills, like much of the modern NFL, play a nickel as their base defense. Gone are the days when teams would play three, or even four, linebackers consistently. As offense move to “11” personnel, the third wide receiver necessitates a third corner on the field to counter. Sure, some teams have started to swing back to a two tight end set, but 25 of the league’s 32 teams ran “11” personnel over half of the time.

With this in mind, the Bills actually have a great situation in terms of their linebackers. They have two players who do not need to come off the field on passing downs, and they both are capable of covering the zone asked of them by defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott. The question for next year isn’t which two players will start, but who will back up those players.

In today’s installment of our state of the Bills’ roster series, we discuss the linebackers.

Tyrel Dodson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; one-year deal (terms undisclosed at this time)
Age: 23 (24 on 6/25/2022)
Playing time: 16 games, 277 special-teams snaps (63.82% of team total), 78 defensive snaps (7.24% of team total)
Key statistics: 15 tackles, 83.3% completion percentage allowed (5/6), 36 passing yards allowed

Dodson signed a one-year deal before the exclusive-rights free agent (ERFA) deadline, so the Bills prioritized him in a way that shows they are invested. Sure, Dodson had zero negotiating power, but Buffalo didn’t have to ink him to a contract so early, either. Dodson is a plus athlete, and he’s shown flashes of decent play on defense in limited opportunities. His bigger role, though, is on special teams. He’s a solid developmental backup.

Tremaine Edmunds

Contract status for 2021: Signed; fifth-year option on rookie contract ($12,716,000 fully guaranteed)
Age: 23 (24 on 5/2/2022)
Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 873 defensive snaps (80.98% of team total), 45 special-teams snaps (10.37 of team total)
Key statistics: 108 tackles, 7 tackles for loss (TFLs), 1 QB hit, 4 pass breakups (PBUs), 1 interception (INT), 6 hurries, 7 pressures, 78% completion percentage allowed (46/59), 498 passing yards allowed, 2 passing TDs allowed

The second of Buffalo’s 2018 first-round choices in the 2018 NFL Draft has been a lightning rod for criticism over his tenure in Orchard Park. Edmunds is a ridiculous athlete who often appears to be caught in-between playing fast and playing his keys. Whether this is a product of his own shortcomings or a misuse by the coaching staff depends on the side of the fence where you sit. Buffalo doesn’t use Edmunds much as a blitzer, and he rarely plays man coverage, instead occupying zones over the middle to disrupt crossing patterns. I miss the days when Buffalo used to show plenty of double A-Gap pressures with both of their linebackers, alternately sending one, sending both, or sending none to confuse blocking assignments up front. This defensive system is obviously a good one, as the team has finished in the top-five in points against twice and top-five in yards against three times over the last five years. Edmunds has been a big part of that success. While he has had bouts of inconsistency, I’m not in the camp that thinks he needs to be gone yesterday. He’ll be just 24 years old entering his fifth professional season. This year is a big one for Edmunds.

A.J. Klein

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of three-year contract ($5,576,460 cap hit; $400,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 30 (31 on 7/30/2022)
Playing time: 15 games (4 starts), 277 defensive snaps (25.70% of team total), 161 special-teams snaps (37.10% of team total)
Key statistics: 35 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 QB hit, 1 fumble recovery (FR), 5 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 pressure, 64% completion percentage allowed (16/25), 146 passing yards allowed

Klein once again proved himself to be a solid reserve/third linebacker. If he were playing in 1998, Klein would be a dynamite starter as the strongside linebacker in this 4-3 defense. Since it’s not the ‘90s, though, Klein makes do as a special-teams player and an extra defender when necessary. The Bills definitely felt his absence when they lost to the New England Patriots, as his ability to penetrate and wreck plays in the backfield would have helped to disrupt New England’s run-first (and second...and third) attack. At a cap hit north of $5 million, I don’t think he returns next year. If the team wants to keep him, they’ll need to sign him to an extension that spreads the cap hit around a bit. Otherwise, that’s a lot of cap to spend on a part-time player.

Tyler Matakevich

Contract status for 2021: Signed; one-year contract extension of original two-year free-agent deal ($3.25 million cap hit; $750,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 29 (30 on 12/22/2022)
Playing time: 17 games, 347 special-teams snaps (79.95% of team total), 43 defensive snaps (3.99% of team total)
Key statistics: 19 total tackles, 14 special-teams tackles, 1 PBU, 1 INT,

Matakevich is a problem on special teams, as he is almost always the first guy down on kick and punt coverages. He was tied for seventh in the league in total special-teams tackles, so it feels callous to want him released to save money against the cap. However, the Bills would save $2.5 million by releasing him, so if they feel that his role could be filled by other players, they may choose to spend that money on areas of greater need. Another one-year extension that kicks the can down the road is possible, as well.

Matt Milano

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of four-year contract ($9,970,588 cap hit; $12.75 million dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 27 (28 on 7/28/2022)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 916 defensive snaps (84.97% of team total), 15 special-teams snaps (3.46% of team total)
Key statistics: 86 tackles, 15 TFLs, 6 QB hits, 3 sacks, 5 PBUs, 2 FRs, 10 pressures, 4 hurries, 55.2% completion percentage allowed (32/58), 252 passing yards allowed, 1 passing TD allowed

Milano is Buffalo’s best linebacker, and he uses his speed and anticipation to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. He also has the ability to cover tight ends and running backs in both man and zone looks. He’s a great blitzer. He’s also stout against the run even though he’s undersized. I think part of the reason fans are so critical of Edmunds, frankly, is that they’re comparing him to Milano. They have different jobs in the defense, they have different skill sets, and they are different players. It’s okay to think that one is better than the other while acknowledging that both are excellent players. Most other teams would be thrilled to have this duo as their top linebackers, and Milano is arguably Buffalo’s second-best draft choice in head coach Sean McDermott tenure (Josh Allen is clearly No. 1 in that regard). Milano is one of the key cogs in this defense, and he’s locked in through the 2024 season.

Andre Smith

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($1,251,615 cap hit; $125,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 4/20/2022)
Playing time: 15 games, 260 special-teams snaps (59.91% of team total)
Key statistics: 10 tackles, 1 FR

Depending upon the source, Smith had either ten (Pro Football Reference) or 11 (Team Rankings, the website linked above for Tyler Matakevich’s totals) tackles on special teams. That total placed him in a tie for 24th in the league this year. Smith is clearly a valuable member of the Bills’ third unit, and he does a great job covering kicks for them. Do they think he’s ready to be the “top” special-teams linebacker? Or do they view him as a complementary piece to Matakevich in that phase of the game? Buffalo’s roster moves in the next few weeks will tell us what they think.

Joe Giles-Harris

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/24/2022 ($895,000 cap hit; no dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 4/1/2022)
Playing time: 2 games, 42 special-teams snaps (9.68% of team total)
Key statistics: 2 tackles

The Duke University graduate signed with Buffalo in the offseason and remained on their practice squad throughout the year. He only appeared in two games, and in those two games he only appeared on special teams. While he played on just under 10% of the team’s season-long special teams snaps, in the games where he was on the active roster, he exceeded 70% of Buffalo’s special-teams snaps each time. His name is one to watch for if Matakevich becomes a casualty of a tight salary cap.

The Bills have two goals here. The first is to ensure that they’re taken care of at the position this season, and the second is to ensure that they secure the future of the linebacker group. In order to accomplish the first goal, they have to make a decision on a pair of veterans. In order to secure the second, they’ll have to make a decision on their middle linebacker.

I love A.J. Klein as a depth player, but I don’t love him at over $5.5 million. By releasing him, the Bills save right around $5 million on this year’s cap, which is too large a number to pass up with needs at defensive end, corner, and the interior offensive line. I love Tyler Matakevich as a special-teams ace, but if the Bills can swap Giles-Harris in for Matakevich at a fraction of the cost, I’m okay with that move.

Releasing Matakevich and Klein saves Buffalo $7.6 million on the 2022 salary cap. That could be spent on a viable deep threat to replace Emmanuel Sanders (Michael Gallup, anyone?). It could be spent on a corner to step in across from Tre’Davious White (maybe they re-sign Levi Wallace with it...or they go big and sign another veteran free agent). It could also be used on an extension for one of Buffalo’s current linebackers.

And that leads us to the big question: Is the 2022 season the last year that Tremaine Edmunds is in Buffalo, or do the Bills sign him to a major contract extension? The feeling that Edmunds has just scratched the surface of his potential is starting to grate on us, as a player entering his fifth year would normally have turned that corner by now. Most fifth-year players aren’t 24, though, so Edmunds is a unique case. There’s a fear that someone with his athleticism will sign elsewhere and immediately become a mega-star in a different defense, so I understand wanting to keep him around. I also understand those who are ready to move on, as he definitely leaves plays out there where he isn’t as impactful as I wish he’d be.

Ultimately, I’m letting Edmunds play this year out on that fifth-year option. My lean is to sign him, but I want to see him for another year. The Bills should also look to draft a player capable of playing a MIKE linebacker role to develop behind Edmunds. While Tyrel Dodson could become a starter, it’s not something I’d bank on if I’m the Bills. Draft a player, let Edmunds play it out, and check in with his agent about what it would take for an extension as the season progresses.

At the end of the day, this is a good problem for the Bills to have: they have two linebackers who would be signed by another team on the first day of free agency if they were allowed to walk. How much is that worth to general manager Brandon Beane? We’ll find out within the next year.