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If Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds leaves, who replaces him?

Some hypothetical free-agent ideas if the Bills are unable to re-sign their linebacker

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Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane will be busier than he has in past offseasons. With holes to fill and UFAs to sign the savvy GM general manager will look to maximize the team’s available cap space and draft picks to put the best group possible on the field for the 2023 NFL season.

Tremaine Edmunds, the 24 year-old fifth-year linebacker — aka the centerpiece of head coach Sean McDermott’s defense — will surely have more than just Brandon Beane calling his agent. General managers all over the league will likely covet Edmunds’ size, speed, and age, which could push his next contract over $15 million a year annually.

If Buffalo is unable or unwilling to back the brinks truck up for their home-grown linebacker talent, they’ll have to attempt to replace both the production and covering ability from sideline to sideline that Edmunds’ 4.4 speed and 6’5” frame allow him to accomplish. This will be no easy task but, luckily, Buffalo will have some options available to replace him. Let’s take a look at who could be available in March when NFL free agency opens up.

Lavonte David

Personally, this is my favorite option to replace Edmunds. But is it likely? David, the captain of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense has signed and completed three contracts with the Bucs, a rare thing for any NFL player. Pro Football Focus called David a generational linebacker when assessing his free agency.

“One of the best off-ball linebackers of his generation, David is still playing at an extremely high level and may benefit from New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis and Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner playing very good football well into their 30s on recently signed contracts of their own. Potentially losing a step or two with age can be negated by elite play recognition and instincts, both of which David has in spades.

David’s 88.5 coverage grade this season ranked second among off-ball linebackers, and his elite 93.0 mark over the past four seasons is the top mark at the position.”

The only linebacker to score higher on their coverage grade this season according to PFF? Tremaine Edmunds with 90.0.

David made $12 million last season. This next contract he signs could be his last in the NFL. Would he make the jump to a contender as the Bucs look to move on with out Tom Brady? Would he take a pay cut to play in Buffalo? Those are the two questions Beane has to figure out if replacing Edmunds involves David. Spotrac has David’s next contract estimated at $9.7 million per season. This could save Buffalo some money, while also, ideally, finding the team with no drop-off in play at the position.

Check out the speed Lavonte David brings on this strip sack against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Azeez Al-Shaair

The San Francisco 49ers boasted the number-one defense in the NFL this past season under former defensive coordinator (now Houston Texans head coach) DeMeco Ryan. Stuck behind two star linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, Al-Shaair saw roughly 42% of the defensive snaps and he doesn’t have the stats Lavonte David did this past season, but the young player may only need opportunity for the statsto begin following.

Johnny Holland, San Francisco’s linebackers coach, calls linebacker Fred Warner “Tesla” because “you can plug him in and he goes all day, and he can get from zero to 60 really fast.” He calls Greenlaw and Al-Shaair “wolf dogs” because “a wolf dog is going to hunt all the time, because a wolf dog is a survivor.”

This “wolf dog” stepped in strong when he needed to in 2021 when starters in front of him went down to injury. That year, Al-Shaair played 13 games totaling 102 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks, and one interception. Al-Shaair, even with less playing time, improved this past season, finishing with a PFF grade of 74.4 that ranked 18th out of all qualified linebackers. His 82.1 run-defense grade was top-10 at the position.

Check out his ability to shed a block and make a tackle on Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott from the linebacker position.

He’s not a true middle linebacker, but he would pair nicely with Matt Milano. This feels like a very familiar Beane-type signing and they would definitely save money going this route. A contract coming between $5-6 million per year would most likely suffice. $5 million a year would put them in line with Jordan Hicks of the Minnesota Vikings, who got $5.95 million in guaranteed money, with $4.45 million being fully guaranteed, and Christian Kirksey of the Texans, who got $4 million guaranteed, all fully guaranteed.

Buffalo shouldn’t be the only team to give Al-Shaair’s agent a call. One particular team that can be expected to sign the linebacker is Houston, given Ryans’ appointment as head coach. This isn’t the first coordinator the 49ers have lost to head-coaching jobs and they tend to bring free agents with them. Before becoming the defensive coordinator for the Niners, Ryans was their linebackers coach. This means that he has worked with Al-Shaair closely. Robert Saleh another former defensive coordinator with San Francisco, and now the head coach of the New York Jets could also seek out the young linebacker.

David Long Jr.

The former sixth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans is set to hit free agency after completing his fourth NFL season. This past season was Long’s first as a full-time starter, and he racked up 71 tackles and two interceptions in just 12 games.

This is what PFF’s Brad Spielberger had to say about the standout linebacker:

The 2022 season was Long’s first as a full-time starter at middle linebacker, but he’s made the most of opportunities in the past. Over the past three seasons, his 19.8% pass-rush win rate and 23.8% pressure rate are both the second-best marks among off-ball linebackers with at least 100 pass-rush snaps over the span.

His 89.0 run-defense grade in 2022 ranked fourth at the position, with his 13 tackles for loss or no gain tied for 12th. Long plays a downhill, attacking brand of football that helps him blow up a lot of plays but also makes him particularly susceptible to over-committing on play-action passes and missing tackles when he takes a poor pursuit angle. Nevertheless, he is clearly an ascending young player contributing immensely to Tennessee’s defense that finished first in expected points added per rush allowed on the season.

Long was also excellent against the pass during the 2022 season, grading out at 74.1 in coverage according to PFF.

Check out this tweet by Brian Baldinger, where he breaks down the young, up-and-coming linebacker.

Spotrac has his new estimated salary to be around $4.9 million per season. Again, this is a far cry from the $15 million plus per season Edmunds could fetch, thus possibly allowing more money to be spent elsewhere on the Bills’ roster.

Final Thoughts

I love Tremaine Edmunds. He’s a classy guy — the home-grown talent who’s 6’5” and operates as the freakishly fast quarterback of Buffalo’s stout defense. During the beginning of Brandon Beane’s tenure and the initial rebuild of the team’s roster, the Bills drafted Edmunds and Josh Allen together to lead the franchise for the next generation. It will hurt to see him leave.

I want Buffalo to re-sign Edmunds. In a perfect world, I’d give Matt Milano and Edmunds matching contracts and let them play their career together in Orchard Park, NY. But the more I look into it, the potential bargain players available in free agency may allow the Bills to use Edmunds’ money elsewhere. Any of these signings would be helpful in the event Edmunds leaves while also, hopefully, preventing any massive drop-off in play from an elite unit.

It’s no secret Josh Allen and the offense need help. The offensive line needs work, a running back may need to be added with the potential departure of UFA running back Devin Singletary, and a complementary No. 2 receiver opposite of Stefon Diggs are all huge needs for Buffalo going forward. If they can save $10 million, put that toward the offense, and sign one of these aforementioned free agents, that’s what I’d do — and let Edmunds sign for $18 million a year with the Detroit Lions.

What do you want the Buffalo Bills to do — keep Tremaine Edmunds or let him walk?