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2023 NFL Combine positional review: LB targets for Buffalo Bills

If Edmunds leaves in free agency, drafting a linebacker early could be in play for the Bills

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Join me as I embark on an article series reviewing each position group from the NFL combine and give my opinion on who the Buffalo Bills should consider on each day of the 2023 NFL Draft. For reference:

  • Day 1 = Round 1
  • Day 2 = Rounds 2 & 3
  • Day 3 = Rounds 4-7

Today we take a peak at “off-ball” linebackers. The elephant in the room is linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Will the Bills bring him back? In my opinion, I think he is a good, not great, player and a leader for Buffalo’s defense. He would leave a big hole to fill, and I imagine that they would want to keep true to their “draft, develop, retain” philosophy. The question is, are the Bills willing to pay Edmunds what he’s asking?

Regardless of whether or not Edmunds stays, the Buffalo Bills have options in the draft to beef up their thin linebacker group. Let’s take a look at who I think the Bills should consider at linebacker in the 2023 NFL Draft. This should be fun!

Day 1 Considerations

Trenton Simpson, LB (Clemson)

If any linebacker belongs in the first round of this NFL Draft, it’s Trenton Simpson. The LB out of Clemson helped his case during the combine by running a 4.43 40-yard dash (second-best among LBs). Measuring in at 6’2” and 235 pounds and running a time of 4.43 is impressive to say the least. Simpson also turned in a solid 25 reps on the bench press. Plus, he regularly showed his athleticism in the linebacker drill portion of the combine.

Simpson is an athletic “off-ball” linebacker who can fly sideline to sideline. He possesses the ability to rush the passer with speed, but also has the ability to hold up in pass coverage. He may be better suited positioned as an outside linebacker given his skill set, but he has the capability to hold down the middle linebacker position. The Bills have two impressive athletes at the LB position (Edmunds and Milano), and if Edmunds leaves they’ll probably be looking for another special athlete to replace Edmunds’ versatility. Edmunds and Milano never come off the field no matter if its a passing or running down, and if they were to draft Simpson, he wouldn’t have to come off the field either.

Day 2 Considerations

Jack Campbell, LB (Iowa)

Jack Campbell was the 2022 Butkus Award winner for the best linebacker in college football — the first time in Iowa football history that a linebacker has won this award. If the Bills want Campbell they may have to select him with their 59th pick in the second round, I’m not sure if he will fall to their 91st pick in the third round, especially since Campbell likely improved his draft stock at the combine. Here are his results:

  • 40-yard dash: 4.65 (2nd slowest)
  • Vertical: 37.50” (3rd)
  • Broad: 10’8” (2nd)
  • 3-cone drill: 6.74 (1st)
  • 20-yard shuttle: 4.24 (1st)

Even with a bottom-of-the-pack 40-yard dash, Campbell still had the 2023 NFL combine’s best “athleticism” score according to Next Gen Stats.

Campbell is a natural at the middle linebacker position. He has an excellent feel for the game and he regularly puts himself in good positions. Campbell is one of the best tacklers in the draft and he has a knack for sniffing out runs inside the box. He’s more suited for dropping back in zone coverage — he understands his coverage responsibility and how it relates to what play the offense is trying to run. I don’t see him being much of a man-to-man type of player, I think TEs and RBs in the NFL could take advantage of him in that situation. I see Campbell being someone the Bills would like, and even being able to call Buffalo’s defense if needed.

Drew Sanders, LB (Arkansas)

Sanders possesses the traits of a playmaker. He has the capacity to line up at inside linebacker and to rush the passer effectively off the edge or on an interior blitz. Standing at 6’4” and weighing 235 pounds, he brings a stature reminiscent of Tremaine Edmunds (6’5”, 249 pounds). The 2022 Butkus Award finalist is an athletic linebacker who’s a rangy defender able to cover lots of ground in the run game, with the ability to be effective in pass coverage. His biggest strength comes in his versatility — he can bring some thump inside the box, is naturally explosive when rushing the passer inside or outside, and has enough athleticism to keep him in the game on passing downs. Unfortunately, due to a hamstring injury, Sanders only participated in on-field drills and didn’t do any testing at the combine.

Sanders was a five-star recruit out of high school who signed with Alabama and then transferred to Arkansas in 2022 where he played his only season as a full-time starter. His lack of playing time as a starter shows up sometimes when he’s slow to diagnose a play. I think the Bills would like the flexibility of his skill set and value his three-down ability. Additionally, having another viable pass rusher via blitz isn’t a bad thing either.

Day 3 Considerations

Owen Pappoe, LB (Auburn)

Owen Pappoe locked down the middle linebacker position for Auburn this past season, and he comes to the NFL with plenty of experience. The two-time captain amassed 256 total tackles, eight sacks, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles in his college career. It’s clear that Pappoe was a leader of the defense, something the Bills would covet.

Pappoe is another linebacker with supreme athletic traits. Do you catch the theme yet? He led all linebackers in the 40-yard dash, running a blazing time of 4.39 seconds. At 6’1” and 225 pounds, he isn’t the biggest linebacker — which could be a slight concern for the middle linebacker position in the NFL. In the run game, he can get lost in the shuffle if an offensive lineman gets a hold of him, but he often uses his quickness to evade the lineman and get to the ball carrier. Pappoe is a fringe late Day 2/early Day 3 player who may see his stock rise after the combine. But if the Bills find him still on the board in Round 4, he would be a great value pick. He has the tools to develop into a nice player in the NFL.

Keep in mind Pappoe’s official time was 4.39s.

LB - Dorian Williams, Tulane

The small-school standout proved deserving of a combine invite and improved his draft stock in doing so. Standing at 6’1” and 228 pounds, Williams ran an impressive 4.49 second 40-yard dash. Williams is a known special teams ace — something we all know the Bills highly value. I can see him being a developmental project that One Bills Drive would be interested in taking on if picked in the late rounds of the draft. He would come in as an immediate special teams contributor who could add depth to the Bills’ thin linebacking core.

In summary

The first domino that has to fall for the Bills is the future of Tremaine Edmunds. If he leaves, the need to find a replacement becomes urgent. From there, I’m sure they’ll bring in some linebacking depth to create competition via free agency. If the Bills were to lose Edmunds to another team, I think Day 2 of the NFL Draft is the sweet spot for finding the team’s future middle linebacker.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis and draft-related content as I review each positional group from the NFL combine and lay out who I think the Bills should consider in each group by tier.