Tackling machines don’t get lost in the wash. Such an analogy seems perfectly suited to describe what’s playing out with the linebacker competition for the Buffalo Bills. Anyone paying close attention to the Bills through two NFL preseason games knows that the team is deficient at MIKE/SAM linebacker. As an organization under the direction of head coach Sean McDermott, One Bills Drive takes great pride in having proficient play at linebacker. In many circles, the players the front office chose as starters were once among the league’s best. Of course, ownership of such status was well earned, thanks to the constant that was Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds. But 2023 is a different story.
The Chicago Bears signed Edmunds to a massive contract in free agency earlier during spring this year. Bills Mafia was divided then, and remains so now. Many were concerned about his departure, while others felt he was overrated and easily replaced. The line dividing the two seems to be quickly disappearing.
While we’ve seen just two games of preseason football out of the Bills this season, you’d be hard-pressed finding anyone willing to say the team has things figured out at MIKE linebacker. You’d be justified if you assumed the head coach, with his defensive background and prior successes, had a plan — content to allow Edmunds to walk. Though it’s also just as likely they were never prepared to lose Edmunds, even if they knew it was certain.
One can’t help but imagine that general manager Brandon Beane was far more direct than initially understood when he said that you don’t just replace Tremaine Edmunds. Still, what’s transpired in the months since Edmunds’ departure feels like a grossly miscalculated move in betting on in-house replacements.
Can any of the guys battling to line up next to linebacker Matt Milano honestly say they’ve earned the right to start?
On Monday’s episode of Ajay’s Analysis, guest Joe Marino — host of the “Locked On Bills” and “Locked On NFL Scouting Podcast” — stated that he believes the Buffalo Bills don’t have a starting MIKE linebacker in house. That’s a sentiment I’ve agreed with for a while now, and nothing’s changed with the signing of undrafted rookie linebacker DaShaun White. Those competing for the starting job next to Milano resemble solid depth — role players who likely see most of their snaps on special teams.
If what’s happening in the competition at MIKE isn’t working, then why not try something different? From within. Perhaps there’s someone else in the linebacker room who might show more promise, someone who’s being intentionally overlooked. This year’s third-round pick, linebacker Dorian Williams, continues to learn behind Milano. Whether that’s to aid his development in general, or out of fear of putting him at MIKE as a rookie — what’s the worst that can happen in giving him a chance at this point? Arguments have been made that calling the defense, pre-snap and during the play could prove overwhelming for Williams. Remember though, Edmunds did it from day one.
Yet, Williams continues to stalk the sidelines, waiting in the wings to spell Milano. It can’t be that McDermott remained unaware of how ill-suited every linebacker competing to start was until preseason games began. Instead of giving someone like Williams a chance to earn the job while learning and adjusting through three preseason games, he remains hidden on the bench.
Admittedly, no one knows the truth better than McDermott, and his reticence to throw Williams out there is most likely justified. So maybe it’s best to look beyond the current room for help this season.
Spotrac’s list of linebackers still available in free agency reveals some interesting names among the group of 39. Robert Quinn and Carl Nassib are included, but both only play LB in 3-4 looks — they’re defensive ends by trade. Players like Melvin Ingram, Kyle Van Noy, and Anthony Barr bring more widespread name recognition and NFL production, but all three are on the wrong side of age 30. As one-year contributors, all three should still be viewed as significant improvements for Buffalo.
Perhaps Rashaan Evans (traditionally a WILL; played all over in college) or Jarrad Davis (traditionally MIKE or SAM) could bring the Bills improved play in the middle of their defense?
Or would general manager Brandon Beane make a call to another team with far more riches at the position? Of course, we can only imagine what those discussions would entail, and any trade is likely to cost the Bills more than not, given their current situation.
The possibility exists that One Bills Drive will attempt to get by this season with those players already invested in the system. The hope is that Milano can continue his incredible ways, not impacted by the loss of Edmunds.
The Bills will have a reunion of sorts with Tremaine Edmunds next weekend in Chicago. It’s doubtful he plays. The Bills, on the other hand, are likely to have a revolving door of linebackers play Edmunds’ vacated position on Saturday. Let’s hope it’s all part of the process to sort through the laundry.