The Buffalo Bills had one of the most dynamic linebacking groups in the NFL in 2019 with middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and outside linebackers Matt Milano and Lorenzo Alexander. The athleticism and multi-dimensional abilities in run stopping, coverage, and even pass rushing, helped propel the Bills to the second-ranked defense in the league last year. But the unit took a hit with the retirement of Alexander, and that hit will be felt on the field as well as off the field.
Filling his role as an off-ball linebacker, quasi-defensive tackle, and edge rusher is no small task and likely won’t be filled with one player. But, to piece-meal his production on the field and his leadership in the community, General Manager Brandon Beane could add recently-released Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey. Upon his release, what I immediately saw on social media from the team, players, and fans could be only seen as an outpouring of love for the former Iowa Hawkeye.
“These are difficult decisions and, in Christian’s case, more challenging because of how well he has represented our team.” — EVP/GM Andrew Berry pic.twitter.com/b835MngLoY
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) March 10, 2020
His benevolence off the field will obviously be missed in Cleveland, but it also appears that the former captain’s on-field leadership will also be missed.
The decision made by General Manager Andrew Berry likely had to do with the time Kirksey missed over the last couple of years. Since his most productive season in 2017, Kirksey has only played in 586 snaps. In 2018 he dealt with a nagging hamstring injury, and in 2019 he tore his pectoral muscle. But when you turn on his tape, it is clear that the nearly-28-year-old still has some game left, especially looking at it through the lens of the Bills’ defense.
Versatility is a buzz word of this regime, which is why Kirksey is going to be a valuable commodity on the open market. Over the last few years, and through several defensive coordinators, Kirksey has primarily rotated between Sam and Will linebackers, but he does have some experience playing Mike, as well. The Browns have rotated their fronts much more than the Bills do; he he has literally played all three positions in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. But it’s pretty clear that in the Bills’ system he would fit best as a Will in their 4-3 over front, where Alexander spent most of his time.
A Will in their over front puts Kirksey away from the tight end, so covering tight ends will fall in the hands of Milano when the Bills are in their base defense. In zone coverage, Kirksey offers some range but is best-suited as an underneath defender. He has no trouble dropping to his landmark in the curl or flats area with his eyes on the QB. His drops are smooth and he helps take away the quick game just fine, but once he settles and routes begin to develop, there are times where he is a tad slow to jump a route. But overall, he does exactly what the Bills ask of their linebackers: keep everything in front and make the tackle. Kirksey has enough athleticism for the staff to keep their base defense out there a tad more than they did with Alexander in the lineup.
In man coverage, the same applies. He does his best work ten yards and in. He prefers to meet running backs at the line of scrimmage when they release so that he can disrupt them and get his hands on them before they make a break. But if he doesn’t, he has enough range to still meet the back in the flats to minimize the gain because he is a good open-field tackler. Can he align to the strength as a Sam linebacker and carry a tight end into the short and intermediate area? Sure, but they are much more of a mismatch for him because of their athleticism and because generally routes to tight ends are much more dialed into the rhythm of the passing game.
One trait that popped on film that would be of interest to Bills fans is that Kirksey is fantastic in the screen game. In just about every game, Kirksey’s penchant for sniffing out screens was on display. He reads offensive linemen setting soft to set up the screen incredibly well. He immediately gets on his horse and undercuts blocks to not only leverage the ball, but to ultimately disrupt the play.
The former two-time captain and former teammate of Micah Hyde at Iowa seems to always be around the ball. At times, he will come into a tackle with his hair on fire and miss, but his quick trigger puts him on the doorstep of the ball often, and it allows him to be super disruptive. Kirksey plays with that “free-style” that McDermott loves in his linebackers.
His versatility as a stack linebacker, having played on the weak-side and middle, works out well for the Bills. He has experience being uncovered by a defensive lineman, so he has the mentality to come downhill and insert into his gap against an offensive lineman or fullback with authority. But he also shows the competitiveness to engage and do whatever it takes to shed. Against the run, he reads defensive linemen in front of him quickly and fills play-side on gap exchanges. This was especially apparent when the Browns faced teams that ran a lot of zone blocking concepts. He was able to meet the running back in the backfield on several occasions thanks to his recognition and ability to “fire his gun.”
Kirksey is going to have plenty of suitors, and rightfully so. His résumé, when healthy, speaks for itself. He was productive in college and in his first few years in Cleveland, and that productivity came in multiple defensive fronts and positions. But when you add in his character traits and work in the community, he is a slam dunk target for the Bills. The only hangup, outside of specific contract parameters, would be playing time, as the Bills were in nickel 69-percent of the time last year, the third-highest. Those numbers could change a little if Kirksey is signed, but I am not sure how much.
I’m told Kirksey is scheduled to visit One Bills Drive this weekend. His visit to the Queen City appears to be the final leg of his three-team visit. I am sure he will make a decision soon after.
Source: LB Christian Kirksey, released by the Browns today, already has three visits with teams set up, the first scheduled for Wednesday morning.
— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) March 10, 2020