Buffalo Bulletin: Your Next Starting Linebacker Is…
After the dust of free agency settled, the Buffalo Bills only really lost one major piece of their team. Our five-year starter at middle linebacker, Tremaine Edmunds, took a four-year, $72M contract with the Chicago Bears in March, leaving the Bills with a hole at MLB. Edmunds was a physical freak, and covered a large area of the field for a defense that was excellent against the pass. The team didn’t sign a direct replacement, and don’t seem to have had great interest with any of the top prospects at the position. Someone has to sit next to Matt Milano this year. It begs the question: Who is the Buffalo Bills’ next starting linebacker?
Our Middle Linebacker Options
The Bills do have surprising depth at linebacker, if we care to look at it. From the youth injection provided by the 2022 NFL Draft to our active veteran depth, the Bills aren’t in short supply of good linebackers. Can any of them win the role of starting MLB?
Terrel Bernard was deemed a “wasted draft pick” before Day Two of the 2022 NFL Draft was even over. It seemed as though there was no way he could provide value, as he wasn’t a replacement for Tremaine Edmunds and the Buffalo Bills had far greater needs. One year later, he might be the guy who starts at MLB this season. He started one game last season in the absence of Edmunds, and took a total of 110 defensive snaps throughout the season.
In that lone start, he did well. Bernard filled the hole adequately and made a total of seven combined tackles. His play was good. He was consistent against the Steelers, too, when he played only 1/3rd of the snaps but got another six tackles. He has a nose for the ball, excellent speed and blitzing, and holds all of the leadership characteristics that the Bills’ front office and coaches look for. Bernard also watches more film than most of the league, and it shows in his recognition and response time.
His lack of size makes for a less-than-ideal swap, but if the team adjusts the defense around him then we may already have our starter on deck. Bernard is capable.
When we talk about the trusted ‘Veteran In The Room’, that player is Tyrel Dodson. Given his tenure, Dodson got ample opportunities as a backup over the last three seasons, and rarely failed us. In 2022 alone, he had three starts. The first of those starts was against the Steelers, where he racked up a sack, a QB hit, and 11 tackles. In the second, he pulled down 13 more tackles, nine of which were solo. Dodson was highly capable as a replacement in the 2022 defense, and could be called upon to fill that role permanently.
He suffers from the same size issues as Bernard, but is drastically more proven in his efforts to overcome that. Returning one a one-year deal, Dodson may be returning to make his case as the long-term starter.
Another 2022 draft pick, Baylon Spector is everything you expect from an NFL linebacker, and no less. Unfortunately, he’s also everything you expect, and no more. Every linebacker on the roster is smaller than the hole requires, and Spector doesn’t offer the same upsides as the previous candidates.
What he does have is great speed, instincts, and fundamentals. His experience as a safety allows for versatility, and he’s absolutely rosterable, but won’t beat out the others on the team for the starting job.
Now, A.J. Klein can be somewhat polarizing amongst Bills fans. Some think he’s terrible, some think he’s the best backup we had, and some don’t really know who he is. When the Buffalo Bills were down to their nailbeds at linebacker, they brought A.J. Klein back. They needed a player midseason who could start in the defense for a week or two until their actual players got healthy.
In his emergency 2022 start for Buffalo, Klein was solid. Unfortunately, he’s going to be 32 years old entering this season, and shouldn’t be considered as a starting prospect.
Tyler Matakevich is exclusively a special teams player, and should only be taking the field on defense in the most dire of scenarios. His only real experience on that side as a pro has come when the Bills are benching their starters in end-of-season no-contests. He’s an elite special teamer, but that’s where he stays.
2023 NFL Draft Prospects
Unfortunately for the masses, the 2023 NFL Draft isn’t the place to be if you’re looking for a starting plug-and-play middle linebacker. In fact, this draft class is surprisingly notable for its lack of starting prospects at the position. If presented with the choice of a late draftee versus our current stock at the position, the Buffalo Bills would assuredly start the veteran.
That being said, here’s the shortlist of startable MLB prospects.
We’ll start with the obvious favourite amongst most of the NFL, Jack Campbell out of Iowa. Campbell is one of the expected top two linebackers off the board, but the only one with the prototypical size to fill the hole as a one-for-one Tremaine Edmunds replacement. Aside from all else, he holds the leadership qualities that Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane expect in a starting middle linebacker. If he has the green dot on his helmet, he needs to be more than just a football player. That’s Jack Campbell.
He’s the most consistent player in the draft at his position, and the Bills best chance at finding someone new to start Week 1. His growth in pass coverage has been encouraging, and allows us to project further as a pro, but it isn’t on the same level as his predecessor. No starting MLB in this draft has displayed that same coverage ability. If we keep looking for a player who is the same as Edmunds, we’ll fall short. He did a lot for this defense, noticed or otherwise.
Physically, Drew Sanders has a lot in common with Campbell, but he misses out for Buffalo in a big area of need. His coverage skills leave something to be desired, but he is definitely trainable. His upside is that of an outside linebacker, he’s an elite blitzer. Unfortunately, it’s not what Buffalo needs, but if they find a solid big-bodied DT in the draft, then Sanders projects into a workable starter in the middle.
He lacks the same intangibles that Buffalo typically looks for in guys who rock the mic on the field. His inexperience makes him a mystery, with the physical tools to be built into something great.
Simpson isn’t able to replace Edmunds. He doesn’t have the physical tools to do so. What he does have is excellent coverage instincts and the ability to follow through with them, something that’s exceedingly rare for his frame. If Buffalo does intend to go position-less in the back half of the defense, Simpson would be an excellent prospect to do it with.
Much like with Sanders, this would necessitate a change in personnel at the defensive line, with a space-eater at DT to allow Simpson to ability to play his game.
You Next Starting Linebacker Is…
The Bills will undoubtedly experience a drop-off at the position, be it from growing pains or a simple lack of comparable ability. The simple conclusion may be to go positionless, and modify the defense beyond the need for a replacement at MLB. Sean McDermott, however, will be calling the defense himself, and answers to no-one on its construction. When the defense is in his hands, he always has a MLB.
We can comfortably narrow it down to a choice of three startable linebackers:
- Terrel Bernard
- Tyrel Dodson
- Jack Campbell
There are plenty of linebacker-needy teams out there, and there’s no guarantee that the Bills even have an interest in Campbell, let alone that they actually go out and acquire him. Every first round pick used by the Bills since Brandon Beane joined the staff in 2017 has had a ‘Top-30’ visit with the team (listed here) pre-draft.
This year, the Bills interviewed only one LB prospect throughout the entire pre-draft process. Even if they do select Jack Campbell, there are questions. Historically, the Bills like to wean their rookies into playing time. Barring a dramatic shift at training camp, that means our day one starter is already on the roster.
I believe that it’s Tyrel Dodson. His three years of experience in this defense and success when on the field give credit to his comfort as our starter. No-one else on the team is as proven or capable. I’m not willing to gamble on acquiring a replacement LB by spending our first-round capital when we can address greater needs and see quality play out of Dodson anyway.
Based on their lack of public interest in the position, the Bills may already feel the same way.
Like this piece? Check out the previous Buffalo Bulletin on the Bills ‘Top-30’ visits, who they met with, and what it means.
The Buffalo Bulletin on Buffalo Fanatics is a weekly editorial by Iestyn Harris. Check back regularly for hot topics, riveting discussion, and, occasionally, some actual insight.
Original Featured Images: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images, USA Today, Democrat and Chronicle; Composite By Iestyn Harris