Bills Positions of Need: Linebackers

03/29/2018
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The argument against trading up into the top five to get the quarterback we’ve all been clamoring for was always that there were too many holes to fill throughout the roster to frivolously trade them all away for one player. But I think somewhere in the last six months we all (or at least most of us) accepted the fact that all the roster tinkering and trading away of bad contracts was to acquire the necessary assets to make a franchise-altering trade.

The problems now after trading the likes of Marcell Dareus, Tyrod Taylor, and Cordy Glenn – other than the dead cap implications – are the holes their trades consequently created. Consider that the team also lost key contributors in Preston Brown, Deonte Thompson, E.J. Gaines, and Jordan Matthews, and those holes have piled up.

With additional holes and minimal cap space to fill them, the bevy of draft capital could go a really long way toward rounding out the rest of the roster.

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To me, there are three position groups that need the most work following free agency [subject to change after the draft]: the offensive line, linebacker, and wide receiver.

In this piece, we’ll take a deeper look at the linebacker position and a few names that make the most sense as replacements.

Current State:

Outside of maybe wide receiver, the linebacker position is likely the most depleted on the roster. Currently, three linebackers on the roster have legitimate game experience: Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Milano and Ramon Humber – which means the team has no true middle linebacker with game experience.

I think we can lock in the Bills’ weakside linebacker in 2018 following a terrific rookie campaign for Boston College’s Matt Milano. Milano finished 2017 with five starts, 29 solo tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery that lead to a touchdown.

Linebacker Matt Milano adds the versatility that the Bills defense needs

 

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On the other side, the strong side position is an interesting one. Last season Lorenzo Alexander started 11 games and finished the season with 53 tackles and three sacks – nine fewer than he had just a year ago. Toward the end of the season, however, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier started giving Alexander more opportunities to rush the passer, as he struggled at times against the pass standing up.

“I’ll have the same role as I did last season,” Alexander said. “The hope is that we increase rush opportunities on obvious downs.” Alexander also acknowledged that the team likely won’t spend a majority of their time in a base 4-3 defense, but rather a “big nickel” formation that has become popular across the league in order to keep up with passing teams.

So considering Alexander will be used as both a pass rusher and stand-up Sam, the need to add capable bodies and additions throughout for depth purposes, you’re seeing the difficult situation Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott have in front of them with just over $16M in remaining cap space before the draft.

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Solutions:

Clearly, we’ve identified the team’s biggest need at linebacker is right down the middle. They’re in desperate need of a mike linebacker that can replace the 144 tackles that left for Cincinnati (Preston Brown).

The Bills have brought in some mid-level, veteran minimum candidates to take over the starting role. The most interesting of that group includes Washington’s Will Compton – who I believe, from a schematic and character standpoint, makes the most sense. Compton has 33 starts over the course of his career and could be a serviceable starter for the Bills in 2018.

Linebacker Will Compton Set to Visit with the Bills

 

Former Bengal and Cardinal Kevin Minter was another name that came and had a visit with the Bills. Minter started all 16 games in 2015 and 2016 for the Cardinals, but played more of a depth role last season while battling injuries.

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The guy I believe would make the most sense for the Bills remains from a leadership standpoint is NaVorro Bowman. The 29-year-old is coming off a season in which he was traded from San Francisco to Oakland, where he started 10 games and helped turn around one of the league’s worst defenses last season.


He’s had a few season-ending injuries over the past few years but represents an absolute freak of nature in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, I’m not totally sure the Bills would be able to afford what Bowman would be looking for, considering they need money to sign their draft picks.

This leads me to the options come April in the draft. Obviously, if the Bills choose to stay put instead of packaging their picks up for a quarterback, they’ll be able to take one of the top four linebackers with the 12th or 22nd pick. If you aren’t familiar with the top four, it includes Georgia’s Roquan Smith, Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, and Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch.

Scouting Report | LB Roquan Smith – Georgia

 

There’s a good chance the Bills don’t get a shot at any of those guys by the time the first round rolls around. So, who can the Bills find in day two or day three that can be this year’s version of Matt Milano? I asked Fan Rag’s Jon Ledyard.

“I think Fred Warner might be that guy. When I think of McDermott linebackers, I think of guys who are big and rangy and can cover.”


“He checks all those boxes. Gets off blocks really well, and looking great processing and attacking keys in Mobile. Reportedly smart, high character and hard working.”

There are likely lots of right answers regarding who should man the middle linebacker position and even the outside backer positions in 2018. The coming weeks will bring us clarity as to who the team feels can best man McDermott’s defense for the future.

Keep your eyes peeled next week when we get a better look at wide receiver.

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