The Buffalo Bills are one of three teams to enter 2023 with a first-team All-Pro linebacker on their roster. Thanks, Matt Milano! They are also the only franchise to lose a linebacker for $72M in free agency when the Chicago Bears signed away Tremaine Edmunds (more on him below in Subtractions).
Despite frustrations on social media, the Bills’ defense was once again one of the best units in football last year. Buffalo was second in points allowed per game at just 17.9 per contest. They gave up just 319.1 yards per game, good enough for sixth-best in the league. The analytics community loves them as well, with Football Outsiders’ ranking the Bills fourth in their DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). They come in third in rush defense DVOA and eighth in pass defense DVOA.
A lot of the above stats are thanks in large part to the duo of Milano and Edmunds. As you’ll see in additions, Brandon Beane has yet to look outside the organization to fill the loss of Edmunds. They have re-signed a trio of LBs in Tyrel Dodson, Tyler Matakevish, and AJ Klein, plus Buffalo has sophomores Terrel Bernard and Braylon Spector which it says it believes in entering the 2023 draft. The draft is the last stop for the Bills to add high-end talent to the linebacker room, but they will most likely need to pull the trigger in the first two rounds in order to acquire that type of player. We will hit on several of them in the futures section.
None! Buffalo hasn’t brought in a player to fill the void lost with Edmunds…yet! All Bills Mafia eyes turn to next week’s draft to see if they address the hole there.
You can argue that no team lost a better player in free agency than the Bills losing two-time Pro Bowl selection Tremaine Edmunds to the Bears. Edmunds was the second first-round pick in Brandon Beane’s first draft in 2018. Edmunds has worn the green dot, signifying he’s the play caller on defense, and racked up over 100 tackles each of his five seasons in the Buffalo red, white, and blue.
For this exercise, I am NOT counting guys like Von Miller, Matthew Judon, Brandley Chubb, and Jaelan Phillips as linebackers. Their snaps tell you they are EDGE rushers. Phillips, for instance, played 813 of his 838 snaps on the line and Von Miller lined up on the line 446 of 450 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. With that understanding, here are my divisional rankings:
So, while the Bills don’t have a lot of known quality depth behind Matt Milano, they still have freaking Matt Milano, and that is enough for them to top my list within the AFC East.
This week the shenanigans continue!— Thomas (@TheThomasDeLaus) April 17, 2023
We've got two phenomenal guests and it's going to get wild!@BruceExclusive, @ZbotTweets and I will be channeling our inner #Bills FO and we will decide who we believe should be on the #Bills roster come the #NFLDraft!#BillsMafia | @Cover1 pic.twitter.com/UiQxzr28OT
Going off the same theory that a single great (All-Pro) linebacker can carry a group, Fred Warner (49ers) and Roquan Smith (Ravens) elevate their groups above what the Bills have with, and behind, Milano. Shaquille Leonard with the Colts, Demario Davis with the Saints, and Micah Parsons with the Cowboys also have that same impact, but have better surrounding cast at this point and I would put them all above the Bills. I believe it’s fair to say Sean McDermott’s backers would fall somewhere around 10-12 as a collective.
For most evaluators and analysts there is a “big three” at linebacker in the 2023 NFL Draft, and they are Iowa’s Jack Campbell, Clemson’s Trenton Simpson, and Arkansas’ Drew Sanders. Many believe that Campbell is the best fit for the Bills, but I am in the camp who prefers Sanders just a little bit more, but the rest of the Cover1 crew hits on those three below. If Buffalo strikes out on that group and waits a little longer than the first two rounds to select an LB, I like Washington State’s Daiyan Henley. The only problem for Buffalo is they have used draft capital on smaller, high-end trait guys recently. However, if Beane and McDermott decide Bernard isn’t the guy, and their off-season rhetoric is a smoke screen, then Henley could fulfill that void in the second wave of linebackers selected.
“I’m in the Iowa’s Jack Campbell/Arkansas’ Drew Sanders or bust crowd as far as this class of LBs goes. Clemson’s Trent Simpson is probably the most athletically gifted of the three, but there is enough discussion around his need to grow in play recognition that it gives me pause about whether or not he could carry the starting Mike load right away. So, if not Campbell or Sanders, I’m not sure Beane is filling the starting Mike role from the draft, but Yasir Abdullah (Louisville – 6005, 237 lbs) is an early day three prospect who is full of explosive traits and is 100% process. He has the ability to carry routes downfield with RB/TE and “the short-area quickness to turn the corner as a pass rusher” (Dane Brugler). He should be able to handle a read-and-react role in pass coverage but needs to refine his coverage skills. It’s uncertain if he could ever handle the Mike, but Abdullah would offer athletic depth and solid special teams play while he developed,” @LowBuffa.
“The Bills have one glaring hole left on their roster and it’s the one left by Tremaine Edmunds, MLB. Beane and McDermott continue to suggest that Dodson, Spector, and Bernard have a shot at this spot but McDermott defenses have a type at MLB, and none of them fit that. Buffalo needs a tall, long player at the position and only two of them exist in this draft class. Jack Campbell and Drew Sanders. Each meets the physical specifications of the position with Campbell being the more polished of the two and Sanders the higher potential candidate. At Pick #27 either of these could be feasible options and if I was the one making the decision I’d find it difficult to ignore the potential that Sanders provides,” @UberHansen
“From the simple outlook, 6-foot-4 middle linebackers don’t grow on trees. Drew Sanders can be viewed as something of a project player, with some believing he’s more suited in playing the edge. Sanders does hold the versatility to play both, but could turn out to be a major sleeper for MLB. Sanders is inexperienced being a one-year starter transfer with Arkansas, but his production in 2022 was top-notch. Showing his sound tackling prowess and big hit stick finish – Sanders is more than equipped to play MLB. Natural talent screams off the tape, as his ability to dissect plays and pursue ball carriers is improving to an already sound resume. It’s no secret the Bills have a massive hole to fill with Tremaine Edmunds gone via free agency, and if they miss on guys like Jack Campbell or Trenton Simpson in the first – snagging Sanders could provide Brandon Beane genius level reviews post-draft!” @Chris_Chous.