The Buffalo Bills are entering the second year of the Sean McDermott era. After snapping an 18-year long postseason drought in his first season as Buffalo’s head coach, the Bills are looking to take another step forward in the 2018 NFL season. Despite the teams unexpected success, general manager Brandon Beane remained aggressive throughout the offseason. He bolstered the defensive line, a unit that was a huge weakness of the 2017 squad, signing defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and edge rusher Trent Murphy during free agency before trading up to select Tremaine Edmunds with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Just 19-years old on draft day, Edmunds was a star for Virginia Tech and will likely become the youngest in NFL history when he takes the field in Week 1. Edmunds has star potential and he’ll be playing alongside Matt Milano, who surprised everyone with an impressive rookie campaign despite being a fifth-round draft choice.
Buffalo clawed their way into the postseason largely due to the stellar play by by the team’s secondary. The opportunistic unit helped the defense intercept 17 passes and force 25 turnovers in 2017. General manager Brandon Beane and Head Coach Sean McDermott clearly knew they couldn’t rely simply on big plays to keep games close in 2018. Despite an inconsistent, and sometimes stagnant offense, Buffalo’s front seven was terrible against the run. In coverage, teams took advantage of Buffalo’s linebackers, who lacked the athletic ability to be counted on in pass coverage.
Here at Cover 1, we broke down the defensive line overhaul, highlighting the players they added and how the defense would benefit from players like Lotulelei and Trent Murphy. Both are quality players that probably don’t get the recognition they deserve because their roles put them in a position to facilitate plays, rather than make them. However, It’s Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano that should reap the benefits of those additions.
Linebackers critical to Sean McDermott’s scheme
From his time with the Philadelphia Eagles all through his final season as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott has always had incredibly talented and athletic linebackers as the centerpiece of his defense. Carolina’s defense was so great thanks to McDermott knowing he could rely on Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly – two of the best linebackers in the NFL – to execute a lot of assignments that most players at the position simply cannot do.
Last season, Buffalo started the season with Ramon Humber, Preston Brown and Lorenzo Alexander as the starting linebackers. While both are quality players, opposing offensive coordinators began utilizing more 3×1 or empty formations in order to exploit Brown’s lack of elite athleticism and make him play in space.
After finishing the season with 144 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three pass breakups, the Bills opted to let the four-year starter walk in free agency.
Alexander is a versatile player that has been a key contributor over the previous two seasons despite being 34-years old. In 2017, Alexander played at a high level in his role as a hybrid SAM/EDGE. He notched 65 tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for loss, 15 QB hits and one pass breakup.
McDermott using Humber as the starting weakside linebacker was a head-scratching decision, as the veteran had primarily served on special teams throughout his lengthy career. Additionally, he lacks the physical attributes to execute all of the responsibilities the WILL is tasked with in McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s zone-heavy scheme. Despite finishing the year with 83 tackles, one sack eight tackles for loss and one pass breakup, Matt Milano supplanted him as the starter when Humber suffered a broken thumb.
Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds transform Bills’ D
When Matt Milano got his opportunity to start, he never looked back. His athleticism was exactly what the Bills’ defense needed. The 23-year old tallied 43 tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception and one fumble recovery. He made big plays seemingly every week and didn’t give Buffalo’s coaching staff a reason to take him off of the field. Standing 6-foot-2, 225-pounds, Milano has all of the qualities needed from the new-age linebacker in today’s pass-happy NFL.
A former safety, Matt Milano can play sideline-to-sideline and is a quick-twitch athlete that moves well in space. He’s got a great understanding of pass concepts and he has great instincts in coverage. The former safety was superb in coverage last year and despite being “undersized,” Milano is a force against the run as an uncovered or run-and-chase backside defender.According to Pro Football Focus, he surrendered just 27 catches for 271 receiving yards and one touchdown as a rookie.
As NFL offenses are using tempo and spread concepts to stress opponents, it’s crucial that defenses have versatile athletes that can cover a lot of ground and that is just what Milano proved he could do last year.
But as talented as Milano is, Tremaine Edmunds is already being projected by some to develop into one of the NFL’s premier linebackers. In just two seasons as a starter for the Hokies, Edmunds was a man amongst boys registering 213 tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, one interception, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has insane athleticism, running a 4.54-second 40-yard dash His length and athletic ability have drawn comparisons to Brian Urlacher – one of the best linebackers in NFL history. Already named the Bills’ starting middle linebacker, Edmunds was the talk of Buffalo’s OTAs and minicamp, drawing rave reviews from coaches and players alike.
His rare blend of size, strength, speed and instincts allowed him to excel in multiple roles during his collegiate career and there isn’t any reason that ability won’t translate to the NFL. It will be interesting to see how McDermott and Frazier utilize their new toy as he develops.
But now, Edmunds has extremely high expectations – even before he’s even participated in an NFL training camp – and rightfully so. There simply aren’t humans that can match Edmunds’ physical traits and being 20-years old, he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. The future looks bright for the young star, who isn’t letting the hype get to his head. While confident and aware of his skills, Edmunds remains grounded thanks to his father, who had a lengthy NFL career, guiding him along the way.
Future bright for Bills’ defense
The additions of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and edge defender Trend Murphy certainly improve the Bills’ roster but a lot of the success will be riding on the shoulders of Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, who need to step up in a big way.
Edmunds and Milano are a combined 43-years old – just nine years over than Lorenzo Alexander, who is the epitome of a leader and the type of person that every locker room needs. He’s competing as hard as his teammates but embraces the opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with the young guys on the roster, which is invaluable to someone like Edmunds, who is 14-years younger than the Pro Bowl linebacker.
As the Buffalo Bills go to training camp to prepare for year two under coach Sean McDermott, Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are two rising stars that have the potential to help transform the defense into one of the NFL’s premier units.