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Opinion: Terrel Bernard gives the Buffalo Bills a Matt Milano understudy

A third significant linebacker is added to the mix

I have to admit: I’m not sure that I fully understand the logic for the Buffalo Bills’ selection of Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard with their third-round pick. And I thought the Bills were going to draft a linebacker tonight!

Bernard, a redshirt senior, was a captain at Baylor, and he’s considered to have outstanding character, leadership, and intelligence traits. The 6’1” 224-lb linebacker is a high-caliber athlete who ran a 4.59 40-yard dash, had a 10’3” broad jump, and a 4.25 short shuttle. That range showed up in his stats, too: in 32 games from 2019 to 2021, he had 270 total tackles, 28.5 TFLs, 15.5 sacks, two INTs, and seven passes defended. Pro Football Focus claims that he never surrendered a coverage touchdown in his college career (take that, Sauce Gardner). In his final college game, he notched 20 tackles and two sacks and was named MVP of the Sugar Bowl.

There are two drawbacks to Bernard’s prospect profile. The first is his size. As a smaller linebacker, Bernard is basically a clone of Matt Milano, and conventional wisdom would say that he can’t play a typical middle linebacker role. He really struggles with taking on blocks and plugging up gaps. The other concern is his injury history, which features a season-ending foot injury and a season-ending shoulder injury, as well as a knee injury.

So why am I perplexed? Well, it stems from my thought that Bernard aligns a lot closer with Matt Milano’s role than he does to Tremaine Edmunds. The Bills only have room in their scheme to play two linebackers, with their three-LB base defense mainly being used in situational run-heavy looks. And I thought it was Edmunds, not Milano, whose time in Buffalo might be limited. Maybe I was wrong? It is true that Milano is a full three years older than Edmunds, and it’s also true that Milano’s deal would save money against the cap if he were cut in 2023 or 2024. So the cynical, analytical read would be that the Bills are using Bernard to hedge their negotiations with Edmunds, in case they need to release Milano so they can afford a deal for their middle linebacker.

Setting that aside, the more charitable explanation is that, when Milano has been injured, the Bills didn’t have any player of similar quality who could replace him. A.J. Klein and Tyrel Dodson weren’t good enough. If Bernard can bring 80% of Milano’s high-energy playmaking to the field, he’s worth it. General manager Brandon Beane seems to think he can play middle linebacker as well, and if that ends up being the case, then Bernard would absolutely have been worth the pick. The Bills have had two linebackers they trust, so if they can find a third who can fill in at either position if needed, that would be ideal. I just don’t know if I believe that’ll happen. I wonder if the Bills missed the boat on Nakobe Dean only a few picks earlier, and I feel like with Dean out of the picture, there were more reliable selections available at offensive line or tight end.