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Opinion: A.J. Klein’s contributions can be replaced in-house

A potential cut that doesn’t create a hole

Every offseason, when the salary cap gymnastics begin for all teams that aren’t flush with cap space for that upcoming league year, three things come up in regards to players already on the roster: extensions, restructures, and cuts. For Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Klein, the topic has rarely been about a restructure or an extension.

With a pre-June 1 release, the Bills can save about $5.18 million against the 2022 cap while only accumulating $400,000 in dead cap through the release of Klein, leading it to be thought of as a foregone conclusion in content circles around the team. Historically, the next logical direction to take after “we should cut him” is: “Can we replace his contributions for less money?” If the answer is “no,” then you have to consider how valuable the contributions are and to what degree they could be replaced for what amount of money, and how that value shakes out. But if the answer is “yes,” then the cut becomes even more palatable to the organization and to the fans.

In the case of A.J. Klein, I’m not of the opinion that his potential release would actually create a hole at all that couldn’t be adequately filled by the remaining linebackers on the team. Let’s outline the different aspects of Klein’s value:

He knows the system

Klein came to the Bills as a free agent in 2020 with part of the allure being that he could step onto the field right away as someone who knew head coach Sean McDermott’s defense from their time together with the Carolina Panthers. Conversely, younger linebackers on the team may have struggled on occasion with what is often referred to as a linebacker-centric system.

But Tyrel Dodson has been in the system now since coming on board as an undrafted free agent following the 2019 NFL Draft and has been re-signed to a one-year contract. Andre Smith came on board only a few months after A.J. Klein in 2020 and signed a two-year extension in 2021. The players behind Klein have been here long enough that any potential difference in their systemic knowledge shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

He blitzes well

After Klein achieved career highs in both sacks (6) and pressures (19) during the 2020 season, it was considered that perhaps the Bills had found a role for him where he really shined. He followed that up in 2021 with the second-worst pass-rushing raw productivity year of his career (2 pressures, 0 sacks), albeit on markedly fewer pass-rush snaps. Considering he paired that with the worst missed-tackle rate of his career (20.4%), it can be reasonably stated that the blitzing component (far more infrequent than it appears) can be reasonably designated to a player in Dodson who is a similar athlete in terms of explosion (1.6 second 10-yard split for both players)—and who showed well in small sample sizes in 2020 when asked to rush the passer 18 times.

He’s a reasonable safety blanket in case of injury to Milano or Edmunds

Klein’s knowledge of the system (see above) might be a reason people would be hesitant to cut and then not replace Klein with an external move. However, it could also be a factor when you consider that both Milano and Edmunds have gotten banged up over the last two years. We may be experiencing graduation goggles when it comes to Klein, who came under fire from a section of the fanbase in the middle of 2020 when forced into the starting role and before the Bills starting emphasizing the blitz in his usage. Although the blitzing plan with Klein proved reasonably effective, the fact that the shift was necessary provides another clue. It would highlight why the value in having him start isn’t likely as high as the fear of the unknown would tell you it is. If notable accommodations must be made to make a backup linebacker passable as a starter, that backup value shouldn’t be so high as to stop you from making a change to the backup of the backup.

He plays special teams

The Bills currently have every single backup linebacker as a potential special-teams player. Klein, Dodson, Smith. Tyler Matakevich and Joe Giles-Harris can all play in the third aspect of football. Klein doesn’t play it at such a high level that would necessitate bringing in an external candidate to play teams as a backup linebacker after the Bills already traded for someone of that type (Andre Smith) and signed someone of that type (Tyler Matakevich). Even if Matakevich himself is a cap casualty this offseason, rolling with Milano, Edmunds, Dodson, Smith, and Giles-Harris as your five linebackers would give you the backup linebacker presence on special teams that’s necessary from depth players at the position.

Overall, the potential release of A.J. Klein doesn’t necessitate bringing in an outside player to fill any of the roles he plays. They can all reasonably be filled by players already on the roster at lower cap numbers, and that makes the possible roster move even more of an expectation soon.

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