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NFL Draft Notebook: Outside Linebacker

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The 2021 NFL Draft is coming and the Buffalo Bills will be looking to add pieces that can push them over the top in the 2021 season. Each week, I will break down a different defensive position group, with some players that the Bills should target in the draft, and why they would be a potential fit. Today, let’s examine the outside linebacker position.

One the main storylines of this offseason will be the future of Matt Milano. Milano has been a key piece to the Buffalo defense, but he’s earned himself the chance to look for a big payday. Will he get it? With the salary cap coming down this year, teams will have less money than usual to throw at free agents. Milano will likely get some nice offers, but it’s possible the Bills are able to offer him enough to stay in Buffalo. In the event that Milano leaves, his outside linebacker position would become one of the top priorities for the Bills to address this offseason. The draft will offer some intriguing options that could be potential Milano replacements in 2021. 

Here are three linebackers the Bills should consider in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Chazz Surratt, North Carolina (6’1″, 227 lbs)

Surratt is one of my favorite players in this draft, regardless of position. He started his career as a quarterback, but when that didn’t work out, he transitioned to linebacker. The switch has gone better than anyone could have anticipated. Surratt became a star at the position, being named an All-ACC performer in his final two college seasons. 

Surratt is still a bit raw as a linebacker prospect, which should come as no surprise. He’s only played the position for a few years. There will definitely be a learning curve for him at the NFL level, and he’ll need to improve his tackling, which should come with more experience. But what makes Surratt so enticing is his skill package and superstar potential. He’s a three-down linebacker that plays fast and shows good instincts. He can get after the quarterback as a blitzer and has the speed to make plays on the edge. He has the athleticism to develop into a Pro Bowl level linebacker, and you might be able to get him with a 2nd round price tag. If he’s available when the Bills are on the clock at 62, I’d sprint to the podium to take him.

Zaven Collins, Tulsa (6’4”, 256 lbs)

I know. Collins isn’t exactly a Milano replacement. But he’s the best linebacker not named Micah Parsons in this draft. The thing I like most about Collins is his versatility. He could be an outside linebacker. He could be a middle linebacker. He can line up on the line of scrimmage and rush the passer on passing downs. He’s got the speed and instincts to be effective in pass coverage.

Collins wasn’t on most radars as a potential first-round pick coming into 2020. His senior season was amazing: 54 tackles, 4.0 sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, a safety, and two defensive touchdowns. He did that all in eight games. After the season, Collins was given the Bronco Nargurksi award as the best defender in the country. Previous winners have been guys like Luke Kuechly, Aaron Donald, and Chase Young. That’s some pretty good company. 

It’s hard to know if Collins will be available at #30 when the Bills have their first selection. Talent-wise, he’s certainly better than 30th. But linebackers generally aren’t first round priorities these days like they used to be. It’s possible a talent like Collins is still on the board at 30 as other teams rush to get in on the inevitable runs on wide receivers and offensive linemen. Is he the perfect replacement for Milano? No. But if he’s there, you take him and figure the rest out later. 

Jabril Cox, LSU (6’3” 233 lbs)

Cox would likely be one of the most under the radar studs in this draft had he not transferred to LSU for a grad transfer year in 2020. Cox started out his career at North Dakota State, an FCS powerhouse. Cox was the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2017 and the MVC Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. By the time his career concluded at NDSU, he was a two-time FCS All-American and a legit NFL prospect. Cox wanted the opportunity to push himself into the top half of the draft, so he transferred to LSU to try his hand against SEC competition. He more than held his own with 58 tackles, three interceptions, a sack, and a defensive touchdown in 10 games with the Tigers. 

Cox would be a terrific replacement for Matt Milano. He’s excellent in coverage, understands zone concepts, and can play man on most tight ends and running backs. He brings good speed to the position, allowing him to make plays on the edge. He’s a better pass defender than run defender at this point in his career, but the athleticism he brings to the position is intriguing. 

The only problem with Jabril Cox to the Bills is where Buffalo is picking. If they fall in love with him, they could reach for him in the first round. If he continues rising up draft boards like he has been, he’s likely not going to make it to pick 62. The most likely Cox-to-Buffalo scenario involves the Bills trading down from their late first round spot. If they are able to trade back into the first half of the second round, they could draft Cox and add some more Day 2 picks. 

Hidden Gem: Antjuan Simmons, Michigan State (6’0” 225 lbs)

Simmons isn’t very big and won’t wow anyone with his athleticism. But this kid is a baller. He plays with his hair on fire, hits like a ton of bricks, and brings great leadership qualities as well. He would also be a perfect fit as a weak-side linebacker. He started his career at Michigan State as a safety/linebacker hybrid because he was only about 215 lbs coming into college. As he bulked up, he moved to the WILL position full time and was an All Big Ten 2nd Team player on a terrible Spartans team. He shows good instincts and he’s a terror coming off the edge.

Simmons will likely be a late-round draft pick or possibly even go undrafted. I like him as a late-round prospect with a high floor and some upside. At worst, he seems like a solid backup LB and a dynamite special teams player. If the Bills are able to get him in the 6th or 7th round, he could prove to be an absolute steal. 

What do you think #BillsMafia? What outside linebacker would you like to see the Bills target?

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