The biggest storyline following the 2023 NFL Draft as the Buffalo Bills enter OTAs is centered around the team’s open competition for the starting middle linebacker job. Tremaine Edmunds – who the team traded up to select in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft – departed in free agency, signing a four-year $72 million contract with the Chicago Bears after manning the middle of Buffalo’s defense for five years. After declining to add a surefire replacement in free agency, many believed that General Manager Brandon Beane would address the position with a high draft choice. But after Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell was snagged by Detroit with the No. 18 pick, fans watched anxiously as Drew Sanders went No. 67 and Trenton Simpson went at No. 87 overall. Finally, Beane snagged Tulane’s Dorian Williams with the No. 91 overall pick in the third round.
Following the draft, Beane spoke to members of the media about the position and warned everyone to temper expectations when it comes to the team’s linebacker play in the upcoming season.
“I know everyone is concerned about it, but we have good guys who are working hard,” said the General Manager. “We’ve got a veteran defense around them. Yeah, there are going to be mistakes. Yes, if you expect them to be Tremaine Edmunds in Week One, you’re not going to get that. Tremaine played five years for us, went through a lot of reps, some ups and downs as a rookie, working his way. These guys are not going to be perfect, and if we expect that from them, we’re setting them up to fail. So I think we have to be fair to them. Sometimes, guys on your roster are there as backups. Until you put them out there and give them a chance, you don’t know. So that’s where we’re at. We believe in these guys and we’re going to give them a chance.”
Edmunds was truly a unicorn at the position and his presence allowed Leslie Frazier – and the entire defense – a lot of flexibility with how they schemed and played. There aren’t many 6-foot-5, 255-pounders that possess the athleticism, length and ranginess that Edmunds brought, and his departure will undoubtedly affect how the Bills play defense. But as talented as Edmunds is, Beane appeared on Chris Long’s Green Light Podcast last week and indicated that the team is looking for a different style of player at the position, especially when facing their AFC rivals.
“As the game is trending, it’s a pass-first league. It’s a matchup game,” Beane said to Long. “When you’re going to play the Chiefs, the Bengals, they’re going to get you in situations. They’ve got great play-callers, great play designs. They’re going to get you in matchup situations. So you want (linebackers) stout enough against the run. But you don’t see that hammer – that Ray Lewis – that firm, knock-your-ass-in-the-dirt middle linebacker anymore because a guy with all that lead is usually going to be a matchup problem in the passing game. So it’s a hybrid thing.”
“Tremaine’s a really, really good player, but there were matchup issues,” Beane elaborated. “He’s 6-foot-5. If you put a little slot on him, it’s not fair to him. He’s a little more gangly. So finding the right player that’s firm enough against the run, can get off blocks, block protections, and all that stuff, but still match up with these heavy pass teams who are going to run really good receivers and tight ends on him is important.
With all of this in mind, the in-house candidates for the middle linebacker position may possess the skills that Sean McDermott – who will be calling the defense after Frazier decided to step away from the team – will be looking for.
Dodson joined the Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and according to Beane, the Texas A&M product is currently the “clubhouse leader” for the job.
“Dodson has the most experience here,” Beane said. “He’s got the most reps in the system. So today you’d probably have to say he’s the leader in the clubhouse. But these other guys, the second-year guys, Bernard and Spector, are working hard knowing their opportunity and we got Dorian in here today.
Dodson has started five games in his career in place of Edmunds, and has 69 career tackles with five tackles for loss. The 6-foot-3, 237-pounder has the build of a middle linebacker, but he has been inconsistent in his limited playing time. He’s shined in the preseason, though, and as Beane said, he has experience and reps in the system that will give him a nod in the competition – at least early on.
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) August 17, 2021
Buffalo re-signed Klein just before the draft after releasing him during last season. Klein is a veteran that has started 15 games over the course of two seasons with the team at multiple positions. He knows the defense and held down the green dot job for a game.
Klein had a very strong showing. He’s a nosey LB. Which was good Vs the Lions rushing attack. pic.twitter.com/vVjdBIneIT
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) November 26, 2022
He’s and is a veteran that doesn’t make too many mistakes from a mental standpoint, but his athleticism just isn’t up to par when it comes to pass coverage. He can serve a role as an early-down run defender, but he’ll get exposed in situations that ask him to defend a shifty receiver – which is the area of the game that the Bills are looking to improve on.
AJ Klein is still limited athletically. But he showed well coming forward on several reps vs DET. He still has a strong knack to sift through traffic & find the ball. And once he does he’s reliable in the tackle#Bills #BillsMafia #GoBills
— Anthony Cover 1 (@Pro__Ant) November 28, 2022
Terrel Bernard was drafted in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Baylor. The 6-foot-1, 224-pounder played middle linebacker in college and made one start as a rookie. Bernard is long, lean and athletic, but undersized for a traditional middle linebacker role. He made one start last season – the Week 9 loss to the Jets in which New York gashed the Bills’ defense for over 200 rushing yards. While the defense was rather poor as a whole that game, Bernard did make some plays that stood out.
Bernard stepping around the block, such similar movement to Milano pic.twitter.com/ahjvCJ9wEG
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 14, 2023
Aside from that game, Bernard played just 51 defensive snaps the rest of the season. Bernard is an interesting player. He graded highly against the run in PFF’s metrics despite his size during his final season at Baylor, and excels in the pass game, both in coverage and as a pass rusher. He generated 36 pressures and seven sacks in 2021.
This coverage by Bernard and his teammates was impressive. They essentially execute a Push’ on three targets. Bernard appears to have the RB until he Pushes him to his teammates. Then has to pick up #3. pic.twitter.com/CSJqN0WhTj
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) May 7, 2022
McDermott is going to give Bernard every opportunity to start at Mike this year.
— Erik Turner (@ErikJTurner) May 3, 2023
Bernard is physical and gets off blocks well for someone with a slighter frame, and possesses the athleticism the team is coveting. While he didn’t get a lot of playing time as a rookie, he had a year to learn and absorb the defense while watching two of the league’s top linebackers shine in the scheme. Bernard should be given every opportunity to earn the job.
Williams started as Tulane’s middle linebacker for three seasons but following the draft, Beane caused an uproar among the BillsMafia fanbase when he said that Williams would play outside, backing up Matt Milano. Williams, like Bernard, is undersized at 6-foot-1, 228-pounds. But like the player taken in the third-round a year prior, he’s long and athletic and excelled in the passing game. Williams finished the 2022 season as Pro Football Focus’ No. 16 ranked linebacker in the country and the No. 8 player in coverage. Like Bernard, he thrived as a pass rusher, generating 22 pressures ans six sacks. His 97 tackles were seventh-most in the country, with 54 “stops” being 11th-best. He allowed a 67.1 passer rating when targeted, surrendering just 19 receptions on 27 targets for 161 yards and one touchdown.
Williams is a missile that pulls the trigger quickly, can sift through traffic and deliver a big hit. But he played in a simplistic defensive scheme in a subpar conference, which is likely why Beane wants him to learn one position behind an All-Pro before giving him a larger workload. If Williams shows that he can pick things up quickly – something that Beane didn’t sound too confident in, calling him a “run and chase” player – he’ll get opportunities at middle linebacker in camp.
LB Dorian Williams, Tulane (#2)
-Some snaps at Edge on passing downs
-Attacking style fits as an add on rusher or rusher from 2nd level
-Strafes efficiently with eyes on QB and threats coming through zone
-Gets depth in his Zone drops and plays with very good Zone… pic.twitter.com/KQ3xluQQdA
— Erik Turner (@ErikJTurner) April 29, 2023
It’s likely that Tyrel Dodson enters training camp as the starting middle linebacker, but make no mistake – this is a wide-open competition. It will be interesting to see if McDermott will be conservative, allowing a player like Dodson or Klein to earn the job based on their veteran knowledge of the scheme, or lean into a younger, more athletic player like Bernard, who will be up-and-down, but provide more upside. As it stands today, there’s no real leader and each of the above players have different traits that set them apart from the competition. The onus is on the Bills’ coaching staff to identify the starter early and get them up to speed quick enough to maintain one of the NFL’s elite defenses in the 2023 NFL Season.