The Buffalo Bills 2017 fifth-round draft pick has turned into a strong outside linebacker. After starting five games in his rookie year, Milano took a huge jump in 2018. The 26-year-old secured three interceptions and 78 total tackles until a broken fibula during a 27-23 loss to the Jets in week 14 ended his breakout season.
However, the BC Eagle came back strong last season with 112 total tackles, including 12 in the Wildcard loss to Houston. Milano will make $2,133,000 in the final year of a four-year, $4.3 million contract. He will become a UFA next season, but will McBeane have the leverage to keep their young linebacker?
For the Bills’ defense, it is all about youth. Buffalo has one of the youngest defenses with the average age being 25.35, which is right around Milano’s age (26). Specifically, the 2019 Bills linebacker core of Edmunds (22), Milano, and Lorenzo Alexander (36) paid dividends on the field. Edmunds called the plays in the defensive huddle while Milano helped drive the defensive line setup for shifts.
Having a younger player involved in the system is positive for Milano and the Bills. The coaching staff does not have to teach a rookie or veteran a new defensive playbook. It takes a while for a player to learn a new defensive scheme. This puts Milano in the green.
A key job of a linebacker is to cover running backs coming out of the backfield and slanting receivers off the jump. Milano locked up in the coverage department with nine passes defensed in 2019. That was tied for sixth in the league for linebackers with Tremaine Edmunds.
Also, no matter where the ball was on the field, Milano was near the action. His 112 total tackles were tied for 26th in the league. And considering Milano blitzed 63 times last season, it is not surprising he is high on the tackle list.
Quiet, But a Fighter
This may seem like a confusing one to some, but it shouldn’t be a surprise for McDermott’s Bills. Like many, Milano is not outspoken on social media after a tough game. As a fan, this is a big positive for me.
Past Bills regimes (aka Rex Ryan) have had players who have been outspoken about the team’s struggles. There have been bashings on social media and press conferences that put a microscope on why Buffalo has struggled.
Milano and his teammates have embraced the “It Starts with One” mantra. He has gone in every day and gives 100% with no complaining since his rookie season. His determination should be a feather in his cap for a hopeful extension.
Shifting gears, flashback to Milano’s second year. Against the Jets in week 14, Milano stopped Jets rookie QB Sam Darnold at the one-yard line on a beautiful tackle. But after the tackle, he laid on the turf in serious pain.
His leg buckled and the replays were gruesome to watch. For some, a leg injury means the end of a childhood dream. As Milano recovered, everyone believed he would be on a snap count come spring OTAs. But Milano never missed a single practice and went to work. He did not use his injury as an excuse. Milano came back stronger than ever, which shows his grit and toughness.
Edmunds and Milano: Clutch Bros
There is no denying the chemistry between Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Since Edmunds came into the league in 2018, the duo has become one of the best linebacker tandems in the NFL.
Last season was key for both players. Both had over 100 tackles (Edmunds 115 vs. Milano 101) and 21 total tackles for loss. They were also tied with nine passes defensed, second on the team behind Tre’Davious White (17).
During a Zoom call with the media on August 7th, Milano said he is expecting a huge leap for Edmunds in his third year. “You can feel his presence on and off the field. He is speaking up during team meetings, so it is going to be a great year for the linebackers.”
In a recent article published by ESPN’s Mike Clay, Buffalo’s linebacking unit was ranked eighth overall. It is an improvement after Buffalo’s linebackers were ranked in the mid-teens when McDermott took the team over in 2017. It is only going to go up from here, and the national media should finally recognize this defensive unit for what it is: elite.
Often, linebackers have to cover quick-hit passes to running backs and slot receivers over the middle or up the field. Throughout his career, Milano has struggled in this department. In 2018, he allowed 26 completions on 46 targets (56.5%) and 284 yards. That averages out to over a first down (10.9 yards) for every completion Milano gave up.
Last season, Milano did not improve on this stat. He gave up 35 completions on 52 targets (67.3%). The yardage went down to 216, but the QB passer rating rose from 69.5% to 94.5%.
This is a cause for concern for Milano and the Bills defense. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier tend to send the house on blitz plays. Buffalo ran 191 blitz packages last season according to Pro Football Reference, good for 10th in the league.
Now, I am not saying that the Bills should blitz less often. But Milano is at a disadvantage, as the running back can easily sneak out for a 5-6 yard catch. Milano is responsible for that running back or wide receiver, and he needs to improve on his pass coverage.
Sean McDermott preaches his next man up mentality. If someone is making mistakes on the field, McDermott is not afraid to go in another direction.
Look what happened in 2017. After Tyrod Taylor led the Bills to their first playoff appearance since 2000, they decided to move on from the former Virginia Tech Hokie. Buffalo sent Taylor to the Browns for a third-round pick and drafted his replacement (Josh Allen).
Buffalo is not going to trade Milano away. He is a valuable asset to this defensive unit. However, second-year linebacker Vosean Joseph is waiting in the wings to possibly take over some time. McDermott enjoys Joseph’s physical style, saying “He plays a free style of football that’s rugged and physical and it’s nasty.”
Also, third-year linebacker Corey Thompson is looking to work into the starting rotation. And with AJ Klein most likely taking the LOLB role that Lorenzo Alexander left open, there may be a camp battle brewing for the ROLB roll.
While Milano is a hard hitter, missed tackles have hurt the 26-year-old. Milano led the team with 16 last season. One of his biggest missed tackles was against the shifty Lamar Jackson in their week 14 matchup. As Milano dove to the right, Jackson juked to the left as Milano tackled air. The next day, the national media and trolls had a field day with the tackle attempt.
Another key mistake happened in the playoff game against Houston last season. Facing a second down and six, Milano came on a blitz in the left D-gap. Coming untouched, Milano should have had an easy sack on Houston’s Deshaun Watson. But he tackled too high and allowed Watson to escape. Watson found Taiwan Jones, and the rest is history.
This is tough when you face some of the best athletes in the world on a daily basis. But in key situations, Milano should know by now that it is all about tackling low and wrapping up. More reps will help. However, it’s something to watch.
Also, Milano has struggled on rushing defense. Last season, he recorded a 39.5 run-defense grade, sixth-worst according to Pro Football Focus. Considering that four of the Bills 2020 opponents were in the top ten in rushing (Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks, Titans), Milano will need to crank up the rush stoppage.
Result: Extension is Deserved, But at a Cost
There is no denying that Milano has become a huge piece of the Bills defense. His ability to continue to work on his playing style is second to none.
However, he is not looking ahead for his future payday. “I’m focused on winning a championship with the Bills and being the best version of myself,” Milano said.
He also said that he would not want to be anywhere else than Buffalo. If I was a general manager, I want to keep him on my squad.
Now comes the fun part: crunching the numbers. Spotrac suggests that Milano will get a four year, $52 million deal on the open market. Personally, I think this number is not high enough. Milano has been a key piece of the Bills defense. Looking at some comparable contracts, Buffalo needs to pay Milano the big bucks.
Take Carolina linebacker, Shaq Thompson, for example. After The Panthers picked up his fifth-year option in 2018, Thompson had a breakout year. He allowed a 66.5% quarterback rating when targeted and 3.25 tackles per game. At the end of the season, Thompson signed a four-year, $54.4 million extension.
Stats-wise, Milano has better numbers than Thompson did when he signed his extension in 2018. He is giving up a 69.4% catch percentage and 4.18 tackles per game according to Spotrac.
Overall, Milano has some kinks to fix in terms of pass coverage and missed tackles. However, he deserves the payday.
Contract: Five Years, $60 million
This contract benefits both sides. Milano gets his payday, and the Bills still have some money left over to re-sign Dion Dawkins and Tre’Davious White. I fully expect Brandon Beane to get this deal done without any holdout from Milano. And I see Milano in Orchard Park for the prime of his career.