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Free-agent depth linebackers for the Buffalo Bills to consider

Who can replace A.J. Klein?

The Buffalo Bills might need a new backup linebacker, on the heels of releasing A.J. Klein from his contract. If one veteran leaves, maybe another can arrive, so let’s peek at the market to see who could be wearing blue and white next season.

For this exercise, let’s assume that the Bills have no interest in replacing either Tremaine Edmunds or Matt Milano (or Taron Johnson) in their starting lineup. We’re looking for a new A.J. Klein or Tyrel Dodson, a player who can fill in during garbage time, run-heavy looks, or if there are injuries.

That rules out your clear-cut, undisputed starting linebackers from the discussion. Some examples of those are Foye Oluokun (Atlanta Falcons), Leighton Vander-Esch (Dallas Cowboys), Rashaan Evans (Tennessee Titans), Alec Ogletree (Chicago Bears), De’Vondre Campbell (Green Bay Packers), and now also Bobby Wagner (Seattle Seahawks).

So here’s the best of the rest. One of these players might be signed for the next Bills roster, but which one should it be?

Kwon Alexander

A one-time Pro Bowl player, Alexander’s landed on injured reserve in each of the last four seasons. When he’s on the field, he has a knack for splash plays: in 78 career games, he has eight INTs, 32 passes defended, ten forced fumbles, 12 sacks, and 43 tackles for loss (TFLs).

After being released from an expensive contract in the 2021 offseason, he signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract with the New Orleans Saints, and appeared in 12 games (missing some time with an elbow injury). He started eight games, compiling 50 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and an interception on the year. Another contract under $3 million seems appropriate for his next deal.

Alex Anzalone

Anzalone, a former third-round pick of the Saints, never really locked down a starting role with that team. That’s in part due to season-ending shoulder injuries suffered in 2017 and 2019. In 2021 he signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract with the Detroit Lions, and played 14 games as a starting linebacker. It was the best year of his career, with 78 tackles, seven passes defended, a sack, and an interception—but it ended with yet another season-ending shoulder injury.

Anzalone has the athletic ability to be effective in coverage, but his shoulder injuries might make him a liability as a tackler (15 missed tackles in 2021). He’ll probably be paid another low-cost contract in 2022.

Kamu Grugier-Hill

For most of his career, Grugier-Hill was a special teams mainstay and part-time linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. That role continued when he signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2020. For the 2021 season, Grugier-Hill took a slight pay cut to $2.5 million with the Houston Texans, but this also gave him the opportunity to lock down a starting role for the first time in his career. He missed three games, but in the other 14, he had 108 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception.

Grugier-Hill’s best bet may be a return to the Texans if he wants to keep starting games, but otherwise he’d seem to fit well into the Bills’ roster as a backup with starting experience and special teams aptitude. His overall value is probably on the order of $3-5 million per year.

Jayon Brown

A real interesting comparison to make is Jayon Brown and Matt Milano. Both are almost the exact same size, and both were fifth-round picks from the same rookie class. They also both burst into starting roles by their second season. You could argue that, keeping injuries in consideration, Brown was actually the more productive player from 2018 through 2020. But Milano landed a four-year, $44 million contract last year, while Brown settled for a one-year, $5.3 million deal with his team.

Milano remained a high-impact starter in 2021, while Brown was yanked in and out of the lineup. More injuries didn’t help matters for Brown.

All this to say, Brown might be an excellent signing for the Bills because he could play the same role as Milano (and he’s a good enough athlete to either be a backup MLB or a third linebacker on the field if they need one). His price tag starts from a higher value, but after losing his starting job in 2021, he’s probably seeing a pay cut on his next contract. Something in the ballpark of $4-5 million per year might do the job.

Josey Jewell

A former fourth-round pick by the Denver Broncos, Jewell spent his first two seasons as a special teams mainstay and defensive fill-in. His role inverted in 2020, when he took 93% of snaps on defense, and he had the best output of his career: 113 tackles, five TFLs, two sacks, and four passes defended. He only missed 3.4% of tackles on that season—impressive given the totals.

Set to start again in 2021, Jewell tore his pectoral two games into the season, which ended his year.

He’s coming off a rookie contract, and shouldn’t cost too much considering he only has one year of starting experience. His best bet is probably to try and re-up with the Broncos, but he’d also make sense for the Bills in the range of $2-3 million.

Nick Vigil

The 6’2” 230-lb Vigil has experience with both a starter’s workload on defense and on special teams. In six years, he’s appeared in 85 games and started 51 of them as a defender.

After four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Vigil signed a $2.4 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020. That deal took him from a starter to a backup, but he still had 50 tackles while only playing 32% of defensive snaps. Vigil then signed a $1.75 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings for 2021, playing 64% of defensive snaps and 43% of special teams snaps. He had 85 tackles, four TFLs, an interception, and a sack. For his career, Vigil has allowed a 91.2 passer rating when targeted, which is pretty much the league average for a starting QB. After a 13.7% missed tackle rate from 2018-2019, he only missed 6.9% of tackles in 2020 and 2021.

Vigil’s next contract should hover around the $2-3 million range.

Elandon Roberts

A situational starter with the New England Patriots and later with the Dolphins, Roberts didn’t play very much on special teams, but the 6’1” 238-lb linebacker generally took between 40% and 60% of defensive snaps in his career. His advanced metrics aren’t great, hovering around a 15% missed tackle rate, allowing a high passer rating when targeted, and not offering much upside as a pass rusher. After two $2 million contracts, though, he’ll certainly be affordable on the open market.

Oren Burks

Picked by the Packers in the third round, Burks didn’t really live up to his draft slot with them. In four seasons, he was active for 59 games, which is good. But he only started seven of them, which is bad. 2021 was the year he saw the most action on defense, playing 201 snaps. What he is, is a core special teamer. He played at least 77% of special teams snaps for each of the last three seasons. With 68 tackles and two forced fumbles in that span, that’s a pretty efficient gunner.

Burks, who turns 27 this year, has great athletic measurables, with a 6.82 three-cone and a 39.5” vertical leap. He just couldn’t break into a major defensive role. But maybe the Bills, who like using their backup linebackers on special teams, might like his fit. Having finished his rookie deal, Burks is probably in line for something in the neighborhood of a $2-3 million per-year contract, depending on how much the team values his play on special teams.

Damien Wilson

Wilson, who enters his eighth pro season, spent the first half of his career with the Cowboys, then two years as a starting linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and one year starting for the Jacksonville Jaguars. A 6’0” 243-lb inside linebacker, his time in Dallas saw him as one of their top special teams players and a situational defender, while his special teams role all but evaporated in the second half of his career.

His time in Jacksonville was his best season overall; starting 17 games, he had 106 tackles, five TFLs, three sacks, five passes defended, an interception, and a forced fumble. Wilson was paid $2 million on a one-year deal for his most recent contract, but he arguably deserves a raise given that he started the past three seasons in his career.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

A former fifth-round pick of the Patriots, Bentley developed into a starting linebacker by his third season, and over the past two years he had an even 200 tackles. He also tacked on three forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks, four passes defended, and eight TFLs over that span.

At 6’2” and 255 lbs, Bentley’s built as more of a heavy-duty linebacker for the type of two-gapping system that Bill Belichick employs. So he isn’t a perfect match for backing up the Bills’ rangy linebackers, but he would suffice for the blitzing approach they used against run looks with A.J. Klein.

Having just finished his cheap rookie deal, Bentley is hoping to see a solid raise on his next contract, although if you’ve been following along, you know the market is ice cold for linebackers. Still, he can hold out hope for a deal paying anywhere from $4 million to $8 million per year, depending on team and scheme fit.

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