As the Buffalo Bills inch closer to training camp ahead of the 2021 NFL season, no player on the roster facing more scrutiny than fourth-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. For a 23-year old coming off his second consecutive Pro Bowl season, this criticism may seem unwarranted to those on the outside looking in. However, after a rather uninspiring 2020 campaign, fans and coaches alike want to see more from the former No. 16 overall draft pick.
Prior to Wednesday’s practice, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier made it clear that Edmunds’ ceiling for growth is still incredibly high.
“When you realize that some of the guys we drafted are older than Tremaine, I mean, and he’s ready to go into his fourth year in the league,” said Frazier. “So he’s still a pup in so many ways and he’s still growing and still learning, so his best football, for sure, is ahead of him. He just needs to stay healthy – and that’s the key for any football player – but as he stays healthy and continues to grow and develop, his best football is ahead of him. And he’s going to continue to grow as a leader, he’s going to grow in some of the things we ask him to do on the football field. Just being in those situations, and being exposed to more situations. So yeah, the story’s definitely not written on his career yet. There’s a lot more good to come as he continues to develop.”
After two promising seasons to start his career, Edmunds faced a tough dose of reality in 2020. Despite finishing the season with 119 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, three pass deflections in 15 games, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 44 overall linebacker, ranking No. 22 in run defense. His 15 missed tackles were ninth-most at the position and his 31 “stops” ranked 36th. These rankings were significantly lower than his 2019 season, when he finished the year as PFF’s No. 30 overall linebacker, ranking No. 15 in run defense and his 49 “stops” were the eighth-highest total among his position.
From a broad view, Edmunds’ play regressed significantly. However, there were a multitude of factors that contributed to this drop-off.
Edmunds suffered a shoulder injury in the 2020 season opener and was forced to miss Buffalo’s Week 2 matchup with the Miami Dolphins. While he returned to the lineup the following week, it was clear that his shoulder injury was a real issue, and it lingered throughout the first half of the season. The former Virginia Tech star made no excuses for his subpar play, however, those close to the linebacker made sure that critics were aware of what he was going through.
This is the first I’ve ever heard of a position change. The only difference is a shoulder injury & to play the run you have to use your hands. Hard to do when you have pain every time you strike 300+ lbs lineman. Long term he’ll be great. Has to make it work until he gets healthy
— Lorenzo Alexander (@onemangang97) October 15, 2020
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier even acknowledged Edmunds’ toughness last season while he was dealing with the injury as well.
“The fact that he’s out there even though he may not be playing at the high level we’re accustomed to, his presence still means a lot to us in the huddle. The physical part is going to come. We just need a little bit more time. But we need him out there.”
Edmunds’ struggles, particularly against the run, weren’t just a result of a shoulder injury, though. The Bills’ defense was without their stout, 6-foot-2, 315-pound run-stuffing nose tackle, Star Lotulelei, who opted out of the season due to COVID concerns. Additionally, the team lost defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson – two of their top run defenders from 2019 – to free agency. Buffalo’s defense struggled without these players, and with rookie defensive end A.J. Epenesa focusing on dropping weight throughout the first half of the season, it was tough for the team to replace those losses.
Furthermore, Edmunds’ running mate, Matt Milano, dealt with his own string of nagging injuries that held him out of six games, while limiting him to 25 or fewer snaps in an additional five games.
This thread, by Cover1’s Erik Turner, highlights just how well Milano and Edmunds work together and why this duo, when healthy, can be one of the league’s best.
Buffalo’s struggles against the run in 2020 were evident and it was clear that the team missed the previously mentioned defensive linemen. In 2019, Phillips recorded 10 tackles for loss when the Bills had six or fewer defenders in the box, while Lawson tallied six such tackles. The lighter defensive line in 2020 clearly played a role in the lackluster linebacker play, particularly by Tremaine Edmunds.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Edmunds’ average depth of tackle on run plays was 2.6 yards from the line of scrimmage in 2020. That number was 1.9 in 2019.
Linebacker rankings by average depth of tackle on run plays in the 2020 season –
Edmunds and Milano were identical, with their tackle depths each averaging 2.6 yards from the LOS
Chart: @MafiaNumbers pic.twitter.com/47jBrbSc2r
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) May 17, 2021
Buffalo’s defense ranked dead last in the NFL in yards-before-contact (3.62 yards) with light boxes, likely a result of the smaller and less disruptive defensive line. Opposing rushers had an easier time getting to the second level of the defense than they did in 2019 when the team ranked No. 10 in overall run defense. With Edmunds dealing with a nagging shoulder injury, he wasn’t able to use his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame as physically as needed in the run game.
The '20 Bills defense:
Nickel – 91% (#1)
Two – High Pre Snap- 51% (#6)
Two – High by Down – 1st down 51.2% (#7), 2nd down 50.4% (#9)
Played w lightboxes
DL was undersized
LBs were injured for portions of the season
All of this contributed to the run game struggles
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) May 13, 2021
As Edmunds got healthier, his play subsequently elevated as a result. From Weeks 9-17, Edmunds graded out as PFF’s No. 18 overall linebacker, ranking No. 5 against the run, proving that his early season struggles weren’t necessarily an issue of skill.
“He definitely has the ability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield,” Frazier said of Edmunds’ skill set on Wednesday. “He is so long and that gives quarterbacks a fit when he’s in zone coverage and they’re trying to throw over the top of him,” Frazier told the media Wednesday. “His matchup ability on tight ends really helps him to be effective so like a lot of teams in this age of football, you’re always looking for linebackers that have cover ability and are not just downhill run stoppers. So you do need to be that hybrid type of player and have the ability to cover in pass defense but also be really stout against the run, and Tremaine – when he’s healthy – he’s one of those guys.”
Make no mistake, there is plenty of room for Edmunds to grow and his shoulder injury certainly isn’t the lone reason for his growing pains and struggles in 2020. The Bills absolutely need more out of their young defender this upcoming season, especially if they hope to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. But it’s clear that the team’s front office and coaching staff believe in the linebacker and want him around for the long haul, as evidenced by general manager Brandon Beane picking up his fifth-year option that will pay him $12.716 million in 2022.
Edmunds spoke to the media following the team’s second organized training activity last week and acknowledged that consistency will be the deciding factor in his overall play this year.
“I think overall just being more consistent,” Edmunds said. “Overall, just getting better. I know that’s a big topic, but that’s just what it is, overall just improving on everything. I don’t want to nitpick and say one thing because I think it’s everything. I feel that if I did 1% better in everything and keep doing it every single day, I think I’ll get the results that I want.”