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90 Buffalo Bills players in 90 days: LB Terrel Bernard

The second-year man has a shot to break into the starting lineup, but there’s competition

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are staring down some changes on the defensive side of the ball. Out is defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier, the man who’s called plays for nearly every game since the 2017 season. His replacement is head coach Sean McDermott, himself a former defensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Carolina Panthers.

On the surface, the change seems nominal at best. McDermott probably hasn’t just ceded control to Frazier on all matters defensive over the last six seasons, so how much different could it be? Well, as the Bills have added players over the last two seasons, there do seem to be a few trends emerging — bendier, lighter edge rushers, for example, as well as an emphasis on beefier defensive tackles.

Another emerging trend is smaller, faster linebackers. Whether via free-agent acquisitions or the NFL Draft, Buffalo has added undersized options at linebacker. While one of those undersized players has been here since the beginning of the McDermott era — and he was All-Pro last year — the others have come on recently.

In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we discuss one of those undersized linebackers — a player who should contend for a starting gig in 2023.

Name: Terrel Bernard

Number: 43

Position: LB

Height/Weight: 6’1”, 224 pounds

Age: 24 (25 on 5/7/2024)

Experience/Draft: 2; selected by Buffalo in the third round (No. 89 overall) of the 2022 NFL Draft

College: Baylor

Acquired: Third-round draft choice

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Bernard enters the second year of his rookie contract, a four-year pact worth a total of $5,042,992. For the 2023 season, Bernard carries a cap hit of $1,116,560, and Buffalo is on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $684,744 if they release him.

2022 Recap: Bernard played mostly on special teams as a rookie, appearing on at least 58% of the team’s snaps in that phase of the game in every one of his appearances except for one. That one outlier is the game he had to start against the New York Jets, where he instead appeared on 98% of the team’s defensive snaps. In that start, he accounted for seven tackles — a career-high. Bernard was particularly impressive in Buffalo’s Week 5 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, where he posted four tackles on special teams. In all, he totaled 22 tackles as a rookie while serving as one of the team’s core special teams players. He was seventh on the roster in terms of overall snaps on special teams.

Positional outlook: Bernard is one of a host of linebackers angling to replace Tremaine Edmunds in the starting lineup. Matt Milano is locked in as a starter, but A.J. Klein, Dorian Williams, Travin Howard, Tyrel Dodson, and Baylon Spector all have a chance, albeit with varying odds, to become a starter. Tyler Matakevich is a linebacker on the roster but a special teams player in reality. Von Miller and Shane Ray are listed as linebackers, too, but they’re effectively defensive ends in Buffalo’s scheme.

2023 Offseason: Bernard is healthy and participating in offseason activities to date.

2023 Season outlook: In theory, Bernard has just as a good a chance as anyone to start games this year, and he should have a better chance than a rookie like Williams thanks to his year of experience in the system. However, Bernard is more a Matt Milano-esque replacement than he is a second linebacker on all three downs, so I think it’s unlikely that he wins the starting gig. In the early going, it’s been Williams taking reps at middle linebacker, which suggests to me that the team hopes that it’s Williams next to Milano come September. Buffalo could also rotate that spot based on down, distance, and field position — as there are things that Williams, Bernard, and Klein all do well, but each player has glaring weaknesses, as well. Finally, given the transition to head coach Sean McDermott as defensive play caller, we really can’t be too sure about the responsibilities of the second linebacker moving forward — and whether that second linebacker will see more support from a nickel back like Taron Johnson or another linebacker. I wasn’t a fan of the Bernard pick last year, and the Williams selection this year didn’t make me like it any more. I think Bernard is destined for backup/special teams duty this year once again, although I suspect he’ll have his chance to prove otherwise this summer.