For much of the 2023 offseason, fans of the Buffalo Bills have expressed concern over one shared issue. No, it wasn’t wide receiver Stefon Diggs and his mercurial ways — an issue which was, hopefully, put to bed after the first practice of training camp — nor was it quarterback Josh Allen’s dating escapades.
No, the main positional group issue was far more mundane, as many fans and pundits alike have debated who will start at middle linebacker in the wake of former first-round draft choice Tremaine Edmunds’ departure. With Matt Milano’s name written in Sharpie as a starter at WLB, the big question mark is who will be the MLB next to him. On One Bills Live after the first practice of training camp, general manager Brandon Beane provided some hint as to who may be in the running for the position.
Beane confirmed to host Chris Brown that rookie linebacker Dorian Williams, a third-round pick out of Tulane in the 2023 NFL Draft, will focus on playing WLB for now rather than cross-training at middle linebacker. Williams played middle linebacker at Tulane, and he even played middle linebacker in the spring for Buffalo. However, most of the scouting reports on him suggest that he is a better fit on the weak side than he is as a middle, and that’s where he’ll start his first NFL training camp.
That comment by itself doesn’t provide any clarity as to which player will replace Edmunds in the defense, but it does give us a narrower list of names to follow. Veteran linebacker Tyrel Dodson was the first man up with the first-team defense on Day 1, which makes sense given that he was Edmunds’ direct backup over the last four seasons. Brown also notes that linebacker A.J. Klein could serve as “veteran insurance” for the MLB role, and he also notes that a pair of second-year linebackers, Baylon Spector and Terrel Bernard, should be in the running for the gig, as well.
What’s interesting about that piece, of course, is that Bernard was drafted last year in the third round and spent his entire season as a backup to Milano at WLB. Many of the things written about Dorian Williams and his potential struggles as an NFL middle linebacker — an inability to take on blockers and fight through them, a lack of overall size and strength — were the same things written about Bernard just last season.
Both players are extremely athletic, and both players show excellent burst in run-and-chase scenarios. Williams, for his part, is a strong coverage linebacker, and Bernard’s potential to translate his athleticism into coverage ability was one of the most exciting things about his scouting report coming out of Baylor. Just because they aren’t Tremaine Edmunds prototypes doesn’t mean that they can’t fill the role that Edmunds filled. They’ll just do it differently.
Regardless of one’s feelings about Tremaine Edmunds, it’s clear that he was an integral part of what the Bills did on defense for the last five seasons. It’s also clear that someone is going to have to step up and replace his 760 defensive snaps from last season. Perhaps Williams will slide back to his natural position at some point sooner rather than later — it wouldn’t be the first time that the team has waffled on Williams’ usage in the few short months he’s been with the team — and maybe this is a whole lot of nothing early on in training camp. Or, maybe we’ll see the second-year man in Bernard earn the role. Maybe the fallback plan, A.J. Klein, will step up and stabilize the role out of the gate.
In any case, it appears that Bruce Nolan’s “fatal five-way” may have been slightly reduced to a “fearsome foursome” of sorts, at least after one day. Williams may yet see his chance in the middle, and even though the team gave Dodson the first reps of camp, that may be nothing more than veteran respect. As we expected, this is one training camp battle that we’ll be tracking all throughout the summer.