A quick story about Matt Milano, who comes in at No. 3 on our list of the most important Buffalo Bills (not named Josh Allen) for the 2023 season: after he was selected 163rd overall in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, I was covering rookie minicamp. A Bills’ media relations employee approached me and said (basically) no one has asked to talk to Matt, would you like to? I interviewed Milano and later used it for a quick story about McDermott’s first-class having two linebackers in it.
I tell you this story to shine a light on just how far the Boston College product has come, from having to deal with me to being an All-Pro. It’s been a meteoric rise for the Bills Mafia favorite. He’s now the man in the middle for one of the best defenses in the NFL. How good were they in 2022? Buffalo finished second in points per game allowed at 17.9 and sixth in yards per game against 319.1. They finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).
That’s why the 6’0″ 220lb linebacker earned 29 of 60 possible points from our Cover1 Crew, with @UberHansen ranking him the highest at #2.
“So, you are going to let your Pro Bowl MLB walk and not bring in proven talent to replace him? You better have an exceptional OLB to pair with him in your Nickel-heavy defense. Luckily for Buffalo, they have just that in Matt Milano, a player who will take on an even more important role in 2023 as the Bills’ focal point in the center of their defense,” – @UberHansen.
Milano flashed his hands last season, hauling in a linebacker-leading three picks in 2022. He finished 34th in tackles while allowing just 72.9% of his targets to be caught, which placed him 14th among qualified (20% or more of team snaps) linebackers. He was also tied for sixth in pass breakups with five.
“There are very few question marks about Matt Milano as a player; he’s been a reliable, rangy, and overall fun linebacker since entering Buffalo’s lineup in 2017, and he’s only improved since then. It’s his elite status and increased responsibility that land him this high on this list; regardless of who starts at middle linebacker for the Bills in Week 1, they figure to have very little NFL experience. This player, thus, will be relying on Milano both on and off the field. The offseason signing of Taylor Rapp also signals an increase in the usage of Dime personnel (six defensive backs), looks that will likely leave Milano as the sole true linebacker on the field. Milano, as a player, is certainly talented enough to answer the call of his new responsibilities, we’ll just have to hope that his notoriously unreliable hamstrings hold up. It will also be interesting to see how he adjusts to life without Tremaine Edmunds, as their games have complemented quite favorably throughout the past five years,” – @KyleSilagyi.
Milano’s box score stats were never going to pop off the page because of how the Bills deployed him, but his advanced numbers show why he earned All-Pro status in 2022.
Let’s start the nerd numbers by looking at Football Outsiders. They calculated 5.2 yards per play, good enough for the 13th-best in the league. The number got even better against the pass where he ranked 10th with 5.0 yards per play. They also gave him a 60% stop rate against the pass which slotted in at fourth best. Flipping over to Pro Football Focus (PFF), his 73.7 overall grade places him in the top 20. A 73.3 in pass rush also notched him inside the top 20. Milano vaulted to number four in coverage with an 82.2.
Milano excelled in coverage and that might best be displayed by his passer rating against. The former BC Eagle ranked third overall with a 70.6.
The number one question with Milano’s usage is does he wear the green dot or not? If you’re not familiar with the green dot, it goes to the defensive play caller. He had the headset in his helmet to hear from the coaches during the huddle.
Beyond that, we can expect Milano to play close to 1,000 snaps in 2023, should he remain healthy. He has taken 90% or more of snaps in four of his last five seasons. Last season, he spent 890 snaps in the box with those split pretty evenly between the left and right sides. Milano also played over 100 snaps in the slot, per PFF.
It goes without saying, but Milano might be the most important player on the Bills’ defense. Not just because he is an All-Pro linebacker, but because he is now leading the LB room with mostly expendable vets and mid-round draft picks storming the middle of the field with him. We don’t know if Milano will add the responsibility of wearing the green dot or how McDermott (now calling the defense) will deploy him. We do, however, know that Milano will be asked to lead the front seven while racking up triple-digit tackles, filling holes, and playing in coverage. If Milano can excel at such a high level that we forget Tremaine Edmunds signed a super deal with Chicago, the Bills’ defense will once again be top five by most metrics.