“With the 89th pick of the 2022 NFL Draft the Super Bowl 57 champion, Buffalo Bills, select, my man, Terrel Bernard. Linebacker. Baylor. Woooo!” ~ Kyle Brandt
Thus began a saga that has both perplexed and antagonized much of Bills Mafia. Questions regarding how the undersized, yet extremely athletic, linebacker would get involved have given way to legitimate concerns that his only clear path to consistent play is directly through All-Pro, Matt Milano. This has resulted in criticism towards general manager Brandon Beane for “wasting a pick” in a critical draft for the Buffalo Bills.
The majority of analysts and fans have come to this consensus, but there is another side to consider, a side that suggests the selection of Terrel Bernard was not only warranted but presents potential value in the future. The below article intends to present that argument by providing context and data to the contrary of a more popular opinion.
Building an elite NFL roster makes it extremely difficult to find rookie contributors. The Bills built precisely that and went into the 2022 NFL Draft with the only missing starters being a second outside cornerback and punter. On day one, they addressed the former, selecting Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam with obvious plans to address punter much later in the draft. This left the Bills looking toward depth in the final two days of the draft.
On day two, QB, WR, TE, OT, DL, and safety were already deep rooms for the Bills, making RB, IOL, CB, and LB the priority. The Bills would address running back at pick No. 63 by selecting James Cook, leaving just three areas of need on the roster. At that moment the depth of those groups was as follows:
- IOL: David Quessenberry, Cody Ford, Greg Mancz, Ike Boettger
- CB: Dane Jackson, Siran Neal, Cam Lewis, Olaijah Griffin, Tim Harris
- LB: Tyrel Dodson, Joe Giles-Harris, Marquel Lee
Finding a player capable of winning a roster spot and contributing from a depth role was paramount at pick No. 89. At IOL David Quessenberry was all but guaranteed a role as a four-way OL coming off starting 17 games for the Titans. This meant that any OL picked would have to beat out at least Cody Ford, who the Bills hoped Aaron Kromer could fix, and Ike Boettger once he came back from injury. At cornerback, Dane Jackson and Siran Neal were borderline roster locks making the open role CB6. As for LB, Tyrel Dodson was likely to retain his LB2 role while Harris and Lee competed for LB3.
Which position was most likely to not only win a roster spot but be active each week and contribute (on special teams)? Linebacker.
Finding value amongst unknown commodities in the NFL Draft is one of the more difficult parts of an NFL general manager’s responsibilities. In the case of the Bills, that means finding value through contributors not just on offense and defense. The selection of Terrel Bernard provided Buffalo with the ability to assure some facet of value outside the traditional expectations of a day two pick, in this case on special teams.
On the season Bernard would finish with 16 tackles on 110 snaps on defense and six tackles on 254 snaps on special teams. This included two standout performances, one on defense against the Jets in Week 8 and one on special teams against the Chiefs in Week 6.
In Week 8, his only defensive start of the season, Bernard would put together a performance on par with that of rookie linebackers. Against the Jets, he would finish with seven tackles, a 58.3 Passer Rating Against, and a 0.0% Missed Tackle Rate. By no means dominant, and far from abysmal, his performance was criticized for being severely below the player he replaced, Matt Milano (Who would finish the season as a first-team All-Pro).
Special teams was where Bernard saw most of his action in 2022 and in Week 6 against the Chiefs he had arguably his best performance. In the game, the Chiefs had a combined six kick and punt returns. On four of those returns, Bernard was the one to bring down the ball carrier. Just how impressive are four special teams tackles in a single game? Tyler Matakevich, who is widely considered one of the better Special Teams players in the NFL, has accomplished that feat just once in his career of 123 games played.
Ultimately Bernard would finish his first season in the NFL with an Approximate Value of 2 which fell below his Expected Approximate Value of 3.3. That being said, considering the 89th pick in the NFL Draft was always expected to be a reserve player for the Bills there was still a level of tangible value provided.
The selection and subsequent performance of Terrel Bernard have led many to compare him to other linebackers in the 2022 Draft. Such comparisons are often difficult to support or refute due to the wildly different scenarios these players are thrust into. Still, there is some basic information we can use to provide a basis for comparing the 21 true linebackers drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft.
There were seven linebackers selected prior to Bernard and 13 selected after him. Of the seven drafted before Bernard, three finished with an equal or lesser AV and of the 13 drafted after Bernard, four finished with a higher AV.
The three players with comparable production drafted before Bernard were Brian Asamoah (MIN), Chad Muma (JAX), and Nakobe Dean (PHI). Asamoah finished with 119 defensive snaps and 285 special teams snaps, both comparable to Bernard, but finished with five fewer tackles while stuck behind Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks on the Vikings’ depth chart. Muma didn’t see consistent play time until Week 10 and struggled mightily against the pass after that point. Dean, viewed by many as a steal as the 83rd pick, saw little action on defense, finishing the regular season with only 34 defensive snaps.
As for the four drafted after Bernard with a higher AV, you have Leo Chenal (KC), Micah McFadden (NYG), Damone Clark (DAL), and Malcolm Rodriguez (DET). Chenal saw action in sub-packages of the Chiefs scheme all season as a run-stopping force. Damone Clark fell in the draft due to offseason Spinal Fusion Surgery but after receiving a clean bill of health became an integral part of the Cowboys’ defense from Week 8 onwards. McFadden saw more use for the Giants as the season progressed for an underwhelming linebacker corps. Rodriguez earned a day one starting role for the Lions after beating out Chris Board and Josh Woods for the position.
The circumstances surrounding most of the players that exceeded Bernard’s production in 2022 were conducive to rookie contributions. By no means a steal, Bernard played on par with the majority of linebackers taken despite being relegated to a depth role, similar to some others (see Brian Asamoah).
The Bills’ third pick in the NFL Draft did not produce to the expectations of many fans, but by all accounts, it was the expectations that missed the mark. Hindsight is 20/20 but at the time of the selection the Bills had the ability to improve most at one spot on their 48-man active roster, Linebacker #4. Terrel Bernard gave them that upgrade as a player easily capable of beating out Joe Giles-Harris and Marquel Lee, neither of whom played a defensive snap in the NFL in 2022.
The most consistent argument applied against the selection of Bernard continues to be that the Bills could have taken guard Dylan Parham in his stead. While a fair critique, the Bills doing so would have intended to relegate Parham to a reserve role behind 2021 Pro-Bowler, Rodger Saffold, and Ryan Bates, who had recently signed a four-year extension. The result would have been spending a third-round pick on a player the Bills did not expect to see the field in 2022, a critique fans often use against the Bernard selection.
Bernard’s size means it’s unlikely he fills the potential void at ILB in 2023, and with a near 0% chance he surpasses Matt Milano on the depth chart, it’s likely Bernard yet again is a reserve special teamer in 2023, and that’s okay. The Bills dedicated $4.3m of their cap to special teamers Tyler Matakevich and Taiwan Jones in 2022, meaning Bernard’s $1.17m cap hit in that role provides flexibility. With a late third-round selection, the Bills have found themselves an adequate backup linebacker who projects, at minimum, to be an integral special teams contributor for the remainder of his contract. There’s not much more defense needed for that, the selection of Terrel Bernard was far from a “wasted pick”.