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Buffalo Bills training camp preview, 2022: 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 offenses 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 this year isn’t what two players will start, but who will back up those players. (And there is a looming decision on re-signing one of them.)

In today’s installment of our state of the Bills’ roster series as we head into training camp, we discuss the linebackers.

Tremaine Edmunds

Contract status: Entering fifth-year option on rookie contract ($12,716,000 fully guaranteed)
Age: Turned 24 on 5/2/2022
2021 Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 873 defensive snaps (80.98% of team total), 45 special-teams snaps (10.37 of team total)
Key 2021 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 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, as he’s going to be a free agent following the season.

Matt Milano

Contract status: Entering 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)
2021 Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 916 defensive snaps (84.97% of team total), 15 special-teams snaps (3.46% of team total)
Key 2021 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.

Tyrel Dodson

Contract status: Signed a one-year minimum deal this offseason as an ERFA
Age: Turned 24 on 6/25/2022
2021 Playing time: 16 games, 277 special-teams snaps (63.82% of team total), 78 defensive snaps (7.24% of team total)
Key 2021 statistics: 15 tackles, 83.3% completion percentage allowed (5/6), 36 passing yards allowed

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 and should slot into that role now that A.J. Klein is no longer in the picture, at least early on. He would seem to have a clear path to the roster, but he’s a prime candidate whenever folks ask for a surprise cut.

Tyler Matakevich

Contract status: Entering final year of contract ($3.25 million cap hit; $750,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 29 (30 on 12/22/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games, 347 special-teams snaps (79.95% of team total), 43 defensive snaps (3.99% of team total)
Key 2021 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. He’s only 29, so it’s not like his skills are diminishing, though.

Terrel Bernard

Contract status: Signed a four-year rookie contract this offseason
Age: Turned 23 on 5/7/2022
2021 Playing time: 13 games for Baylor
Key 2021 statistics: 103 tackle (12.5 TFL)s, 7.5 sacks, 4 passes defended for Baylor

Bernard capped off a productive college career in 2021 with an All-Big 12 season. He was Buffalo’s third-round selection, which seems high for a guy who has no clear path to the starting lineup in the near future. He plays more like Milano than Edmunds, so are they planning on moving him into Edmunds’s role a year from now when the veteran leaves via free agency? We’re going to learn a lot about Bernard and his place on the roster at St. John Fisher. If he’s not the top reserve linebacker right away, that’s okay as he gets his feet wet. But with his draft stock, they clearly have plans for him in the future beyond special teams. For now, we expect big things in the kicking games.

Andre Smith

Contract status: Entering final year of two-year contract ($1,251,615 cap hit; $125,000 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: Turned 25 on 4/20/2022
2021 Playing time: 15 games, 260 special-teams snaps (59.91% of team total)
Key 2021 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. With Bernard in the fold, it will cut into his playing time and a six-game PED suspension to start the season won’t help matters. He’s playing for a job in training camp despite his contributions in 2021.

Joe Giles-Harris

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

The Duke University graduate signed with Buffalo last 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, but he’ll also be competing with the rest of the linebackers for the final spot on the roster. He has an uphill climb, for sure.

Marquel Lee

Contract status: Signed a one-year deal for veteran minimum this offseason
Age: 26 (Turns 27 10/21/2022)
2021 Playing time: 11 games, 33 defensive snaps (2.85%) and 240 special teams snaps (50.31%) for Las Vegas Raiders
Key 2021 statistics: 11 tackles for Vegas

Lee spent the 2021 offseason with the Bills but was released in final cutdowns. He returned to the Raiders, where he spent the previous seasons in his career, and stepped into a special teams role for them from the get-go. If he makes Buffalo’s roster, that’s probably his ceiling in Buffalo, as well, but it will be a tough climb for him to get there. He does have starting experience in the NFL, but it was four years and one major surgery ago.

Baylon Spector

Contract status: Signed a four-year rookie deal this offseason
Age: 23 (Turns 24 on 10/20/2022)
2021 Playing time: 11 games for Clemson Tigers
Key 2021 statistics: 74 tackles (3.5 TFL), 2.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 pass defended, 1 fumble recovery for Clemson

Spector was a surprise when he was picked in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Bills didn’t have a clear path to the roster at the linebacker position, especially after picking Bernard in the third round. Still, he brings a high level of play from a top college program. If he wants to make the roster, he’ll need to be a special teams missile. It’s more likely he heads to the practice squad for some seasoning.

The top two spots are clearly set, but every level after that is wide open. Tyrel Dodson could be LB3 or off the roster. Terrel Bernard could be LB3 or buried and a special teams asset. The most interesting battle in this position group is for that primary backup role, and we’ll have to see who comes out with it between those two, or if a guy like Marquel Lee can play out of his mind and work his way into that spot.

Expect Andre Smith to start the year on the suspended list while they kick the can down the road six weeks on cutting him or keeping him.

Beyond that, this is fruitful ground for special teams work. Can someone outwork Tyler Matakevich to claim his roster spot? How many linebackers are they going to keep? What’s the pecking order here and can they stay healthy?

It is certainly a position group worth watching at St. John Fisher College, even without full contact. Who looks slow in coverage and late to the ball? Who is keying on their reads? Ultimately, the preseason games will be huge for this group, as well.