The Buffalo Bills boast two of the NFL’s best linebackers, and they have for the better part of the last five seasons. Given that the team’s base defense is its nickel package, they’ve been able to thrive with a top-heavy linebacker group. But there has been a fairly steep dropoff behind those two starting players.
While one of Buffalo’s top linebackers remains under contract, the other is set to hit free agency this spring. General manager Brandon Beane has a difficult choice ahead of him, as it’s almost certainly going to require a great deal of any salary cap space Buffalo opens through various restructures just to re-sign the second of their picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.
In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we discuss the linebackers — a group that could look quite different next year than it has this season. Before we start, though, just a brief programming note: Even though Buffalo still lists Von Miller as a linebacker on the team’s official roster, we aren’t going to discuss him here. Miller functions more as a defensive end in the Sean McDermott/Leslie Frazier defense, so that’s where we’ll talk about him.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($1,166,160 cap hit; $684,744 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 23 (24 on 5/7/23)
Playing time: 16 games (1 start), 110 defensive snaps (10.47% of team total), 254 special teams snaps (61.95% of team total)
Key statistics: 22 tackles (7 on special teams)
As with most of Buffalo’s rookies this year, Bernard contributed little on his main unit, instead spending most of his time on special teams. Part of this is because he backed up an All-Pro linebacker who stayed healthy for much of the year, however. In Bernard’s one start, it wasn’t exactly a banner day for the defense, as the Bills allowed the New York Jets to gain a season-high 174 rushing yards in Buffalo’s 20-17 loss at MetLife Stadium. That’s not necessarily on Bernard, but it was clear that the team was missing a starter when he was in the game. It remains to be seen whether his role will increase in year two.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; RFA ($2.627 million right-of-first-refusal tender per OvertheCap)
Age: 24 (25 on 6/25/23)
Playing time: 16 games (3 starts), 220 defensive snaps (20.93% of team total), 276 special teams snaps (67.32% of team total)
Key statistics: 32 tackles (4 on special teams), 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery
Dodson has been the direct backup at middle linebacker for much of his career, and he slid in for three starts when Tremaine Edmunds missed time this season, as well. In one of those starts, though, he was the third linebacker—Buffalo’s 28-25 victory over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day—as he ceded playing time to veteran A.J. Klein. Dodson is worth retaining for his knowledge of the defense and his importance to the special teams unit, but there is a zero-percent chance that he’s worth the restricted free-agent tender. Buffalo would be wise to try to sign him to a lesser contract, and if Dodson refuses, then they should bid him adieu.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 24 (25 on 5/2/23)
Playing time: 13 games (13 starts), 760 defensive snaps (72.31% of team total), 48 special teams snaps (11.71% of team total)
Key statistics: 102 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 1 sack, 7 pass breakups, 1 interception
The biggest decision on Beane’s plate is what to do with Edmunds, who is an integral part of what the Bills do on defense and is sure to be highly coveted for his elite athletic traits on the open market. While Edmunds has been a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” for Bills fans since entering the league in 2018, it’s hard to argue that the defense is better without him. He had what was probably his best season this year, as well. OverTheCap lists the franchise tag for a linebacker at just north of $20 million for 2023, so that really isn’t an option for the Bills given their salary cap constraints. For my money, Edmunds is Buffalo’s most important free agent, and he’s one of only two (with the other being standout safety Jordan Poyer) that I’d say should even be high-priority players to attempt to re-sign.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 31 (32 on 7/30/23)
Playing time: 6 games (1 start), 86 defensive snaps (8.18% of team total), 83 special teams snaps (20.24% of team total)
Key statistics: 11 tackles (2 on special teams), 1 tackle for loss
Klein was re-acquired in the middle of the season, and in his one start, he was phenomenal. Starting in place of Edmunds, Klein made nine tackles with one tackle for loss on Thanksgiving Day. He was the closest player in coverage on four passes, and while he allowed three completions, they only totaled 12 yards. Klein is one of those guys that I always think is much older than he is, and while he shouldn’t be a starter, he’s definitely an excellent depth player and special teams player who fits the defense well. Trying to bring him back on a low-cost deal should be a discussion for Bills’ brass.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 30 (31 on 12/22/23)
Playing time: 16 games, 323 special teams snaps (78.78% of team total), 3 defensive snaps (.29% of team total)
Key statistics: 8 special teams tackles
Matakevich has been a linchpin of the Bills’ coverage units since arriving via free agency, and while he offers essentially no utility to the defense, he is a vital cog in the game’s third phase. Depending on the kind of contract he’ll seek, he may not be as obvious a cut or re-signing as it may seem. I won’t be surprised regardless of what the team decides.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; third year of four-year contract ($13,338,588 cap hit; $8.672 million dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 28 (29 on 7/28/23)
Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 947 defensive snaps (90.1% of team total), 24 special teams snaps (5.85% of team total)
Key statistics: 99 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups, 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown
After years of flying under the radar, Milano finally earned the accolades he’s deserved throughout his career this season. Not only was he named to his first career Pro Bowl, but he was also voted First Team All Pro by the Associated Press. He was first on the team in solo tackles, second in total tackles, second in interceptions, second in pass breakups, first in tackles for loss—and first in missed tackles. Whether you think he’s LB1, LB2, LB1a, or LB1b on this roster, it’s clear that Milano is one of the best players on the defense. While I don’t expect another contract restructure (Buffalo already restructured his deal last March), if the Bills go that route again, they can save right around $4 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($895,931 cap hit; $77,793 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 10/20/23)
Playing time: 6 games, 86 special teams snaps (20.98% of team total), 12 defensive snaps (1.14% of team total)
Key statistics: 6 tackles (2 on special teams)
The rookie was a healthy scratch more often than not this season, and when he was active, he was used mostly on special teams. All 12 of his snaps on defense came in Buffalo’s 38-3 thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5.
The linebacker group is another spot where Buffalo has some decisions to make. They have a pair of young players under contract next year, so they could decide to elevate one of those two into a larger role if they allow Edmunds to leave via free agency. They have a pair of solid, well-respected veteran backups who serve specific purposes, as well, and they may decide to re-sign those players to give them some depth heading into training camp.
The big discussion, though, centers on Edmunds and whether he’ll be back. Spotrac has his value at $11 million per season on the open market, but I think that’s quite a bit low. He does things in passing windows that most linebackers can only dream of doing thanks to his speed and length, and while he has often been knocked for his lack of physicality in the run game, he made great strides this season in terms of consistent tackling. Edmunds was credited with just one missed tackle all season, a far cry from his rookie year when he was credited with 24 missed tackles.
Brandon Beane is a big believer in the draft, develop, retain method of roster building, but eventually, money does become scarce in the banana stand. I fully expect that Buffalo will make a fair offer to try to retain Edmunds — think four years and in the neighborhood of $56 million with $20 million in guarantees — but he may be able to find a better contract on the open market. The Bills could also thank him for his time and move on, replacing him either with a budget free agent or another draft choice.
Given the other positions on the roster that need to be addressed (offensive line, safety, and wide receiver, to name a few), I don’t think it’s wise to open another hole on defense. If the team thinks that Bernard can step in to replace Edmunds, they certainly hid that intention this season given that Bernard was used exclusively as a backup for Milano. In any case, I don’t think we’ll have to wait long for a resolution, because if the Bills allow Edmunds to test the market, he’s definitely going to be a “first-wave” signing.
The Bills have a big choice to make at linebacker.