Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott said earlier this week that “(t)here’s room for improvement” among those competing for the starting job at middle linebacker. Bills beat reporter Matt Parrino reported that it’s an area McDermott is “concerned with...,” and that the group needs to “be better with communication and leadership.”
Sean McDermott on the middle linebacker competition. "There's room for improvement." He says that's an area he's concerned with. Needs to be better with communication and leadership.— Matt Parrino (@MattParrino) August 17, 2023
Whether that stems from the results of this week’s practice, or just a general observation of McDermott’s on a snap-to-snap basis, we aren’t privy. But one thing we do understand is that it was anything but friendly fire during more than one of Buffalo’s team practices this week. And it all centered around one player.
We’ve discussed linebacker Tyrel Dodson often this week at Buffalo Rumblings, and not as a means to pile on to what has been a challenging week for him. But we’re not alone, either. Dodson’s name has come up frequently within Bills media circles, given the confrontations he was involved with early in the week.
Yet, Dodson’s not alone when it comes to discussing the team’s linebackers. He’s just become the latest point of emphasis for those beating the drum looking for an answer to: “Who’s going to start at MIKE this season?” The only proven, undisputed starter in the room is linebacker Matt Milano. The All-Pro / Pro Bowl linebacker is among the most important defenders on the roster. But replacing his running mate of five seasons (Tremaine Edmunds) has proven a very challenging task, and that could be a concern given how well Milano and Edmunds played as a pair.
General manager Brandon Beane warned anyone listening that one simply doesn’t replace Edmunds. The implication was that, essentially, the team might have to re-visit how it plays the MIKE position, and the type of player who can adequately fill its role. Perhaps a unicorn at linebacker, Edmunds took his talents to the Windy City — and fans have every right to expect the team was prepared for his departure. Or were they?
They didn’t make much of an effort to find that answer in free agency after losing Edmunds the minute he could sign elsewhere. However, there was reported interest in Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David. That never came to fruition, so the belief was that Beane and the front office would target someone early in the draft. Early turned out to be Round 3, when Buffalo’s choice was announced as linebacker Dorian Williams out of Tulane University. Instead of rejoicing at the heir-apparent to Edmunds, many (both paid to dissect draft moves and those with armchair roots) were confused by the move.
Then came the news: Dorian Williams wouldn’t begin his career with the Bills by learning their MIKE position. Williams was set to learn behind Milano. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if Williams will ever compete for a chance to start at middle linebacker. In defense of McDermott, the role is a challenging one. The added responsibility of diagnosing offensive plays and calling the defense on the field is likely a tall task for most rookies. (But Edmunds did it from day one.)
So it was. The competition for MIKE would play out between Terrel Bernard and Tyrel Dodson, with Baylon Spector and A.J. Klein in the wings. What’s unfolded has been a face off between three very unproven NFL players and one scrappy long-tenured vet who presents athletic limitations for the role. Though, Klein likely knows a great deal about the MIKE role in McDermott’s defense.
Next came the hamstring injury for Bernard who, by most reported accounts, was having a fantastic camp — and whose play excited McDermott. It appeared Bernard was set to win the role over Dodson before his injury. While Bernard was observed off to the side on the practice field this week, there remains no announced timetable for his return.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, Bernard got the start, with Klein in on second team. The same will apply this week. Crediting Williams, he played exceptionally well in relief of Milano. But, again, Williams isn’t in contention to play MIKE, and he’s not going to send Milano to the bench due to performance issues. No matter how well Dorian Williams plays now and this season, can it be in a starting role? Will there be packages that feature him on the field with Milano and/or the starting middle linebacker?
Without being at practice, we don’t really know if Dodson’s been getting the lion’s share of snaps, or if a near-even split continues, now involving Klein and Spector. If it’s the latter, it has to be frustrating to everyone involved. It’s difficult to develop the requisite communication prowess and establish a meaningful leadership role if you’re constantly rotating in and out of the lineup. As much as we know the Bills like to rotate their defenders to keep them fresh, it can’t benefit the team at all positions.
Yes, what’s become obvious is that a lack of consistency is pervasive in Buffalo’s linebacker room. What happened to Bernard is unfortunate, and likely plays heavily into the current situation. Injuries aren’t something any team expects, but with a unit starting out so unprepared to, well, start at MIKE? It’s a concern to me that things are still so unsettled. Some, to their credit, choose to see it as exciting. For a team hoping to make a viable Super Bowl run this season, it appears there will be a lot of learning on the field for whomever lines up at MIKE in 2023. Unless that’s A.J. Klein, which (with all due respect to him) excites almost no one.
The point is: We haven’t seen much from any of the guys battling to start at middle linebacker. That which we have seen hasn’t served as encouraging news, at least prior to this season. When the Bills were forced to play without Edmunds last season, the dropoff was precipitous. Have things changed on that front mere months removed from the 2022 campaign? Time will tell, whether the team and its fans are ready... or not.
Understandably, we’ll never know if Beane and McDermott had alternate plans at linebacker spoiled on multiple levels. We can only trust the process that’s playing out in front of us.
Are you troubled by Sean McDermott’s concern, or is this just his way of lighting a fire under players capable of more? Is there anything more the team could have done, and should be doing now to shore up their needs at MIKE?