Here we are, part six of my series examining the Buffalo Bills, and I feel like we should just start over from the beginning again. Between re-signing so many of their free agents and winning the Mario Williams lottery, Buffalo has spent money and made decisions like a real NFL team since the season ended, giving their many 2011 questions some solid looking answers in the early parts of 2012. Though their defense has gone from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and they're inching closer to being a respectable opponent on both sides of the ball, it still remains to be seen if returning players can continue to gel in their new roles, especially in the three linebacker positions.
Last year, the linebackers were a four part tune and were much more heavily involved in bolstering the anemic pass rush, which didn't end up working out so well in the end. Nick Barnett looked solid in his first year after being lured from Green Bay to the Bills (by Shawne Merriman, his biggest contribution in Buffalo I believe), finishing the year leading the team with 130 tackles (8 for loss), in addition to 3 sacks, and 3 INTs, one of which he returned for six against Philadelphia (he took two from Vick that day). Meanwhile, rookie Kelvin Sheppard racked up 70 tackles and was the other real standout in the linebacker corps. Seven year NFL veteran Kirk Morrison, unfortunately, was a ghost his debut season in Buffalo with seven tackles and a sack in 14 games played (though no starts) and was re-signed in the offseason mostly based on experience and career numbers (727 tackles, 6 sacks, 7 INTs), while Arthur Moats finished the season strong after being almost non-existent most of the year previous (8 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble in the final two against Denver and New England, giving him season totals of 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble). Of course, Merriman didn't make it past week 5 before going out injured yet again, making it a total of eight seasons without playing all 16 (time to cut him loose, Buddy, not make him a defensive end).
Last season, under George Edwards, the Bills linebackers never truly seemed comfortable in knowing what their roles were, looking slow getting back in pass coverage and helping not at all in the pass rush (must we revisit the 28th ranking in sacks every article). However, with the ascension of Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator, the linebackers got trimmed up and their jobs are becoming much more clearly defined, especially with the addition of power on the front four.
In the 2012 season, Kelvin Sheppard is pegged to play middle linebacker (or Mike), giving Buffalo a solid young tackler locking down the center. Important largely in sniffing out the runner, Sheppard's role in the new 4-3 will be locking down the center of the field, ensuring the runners don't get to the next level and stopping any passes thrown short, across the middle (he'll be matching up with fullbacks and tight ends more often than receivers). This should play to Sheppard's strength set and give the LSU alum more chances to shine as the unofficial quarterback of his defense (alot to ask a young guy, but he's a smart player, was well coached in college, and is the best man for the job).
Flanking Sheppard on the strong side will likely be Morrison, who is reportedly "pleased to have earned a second chance with the team" to show what he can do after not quite finding a place in the 3-4 last year. As the "Sam" linebacker, Morrison will be a part of many blitz packages, but will be primarily responsible for run stops and covering the tight end, the latter of which is especially important playing in the AFC East (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez aren't surprise talents in 2012). For his career, Morrison has 19 pass deflections, so he can drop back in coverage when needed, but those 700+ tackles are the more telling number, combining to paint the picture of a talented veteran who is capable of stopping the runner, breaking up screens, and setting the edge to drive the runner back to the teeth of Buffalo's improved defense (as well as grab an errant pass when needed). Get him loose on the left side and see the havoc he causes for opposing teams next season, now that he's got a two year deal and a vote of confidence to go with a clearer role in Buffalo's scheme.
That leaves Barnett, the weak side linebacker whose role is to basically find the best place to make a play in every defensive scheme. A blitzer, a screen destroyer, as well as a nightmare for both QBs and running backs, Barnett will be doing more of what he's been doing since being drafted by the Packers in the first round of 2003. For his career, Barnett has 917 tackles, 18.5 sacks, and 12 INTs, so he's got talent across the board and was a steal at three years for $12 million when Buffalo signed him last August. Again, this was the leading tackler on the team, who tallied 11 tackles in each of the two games against New England this season, who had 6 games of double digit tackles on the year, and who, at 6'2" and 230 lbs, can bully through the blocks of offensive linemen as easily as he can a blocking tight end. He's the star of the Bills linebacker squad and should see some major opportunity with Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams drawing all the blockers.
So, the starting three are there, but where's the depth? On the Bills current roster, Moats looks to back up Morrison, but there's no real definitive answer to a second option at the other two positions. Mississippi State rookie Chris White was pretty non-existent in his first season in the NFL (8 tackles, a forced fumble) and third year linebacker Scott McKillop hasn't played a game for Buffalo yet and has only 16 total tackles his one year with the 49ers. Safety Bryan Scott is an interesting choice if he re-signs, big enough to play OLB at 220 lbs and veteran enough to be able to adapt to the position with ease should the Bills ask of him. In 2011, he had 66 tackles, sack, and 2 INTs playing safety, giving him a total of 525 tackles in nine seasons (five in Buffalo) and 10.5 sacks. However, should he not come back, the Bills will surely look to the later rounds of the draft to grab some linebacker depth and probably should anyway, as their likely to begin shedding contracts before too much longer (again, can I hear Merriman?). Possible fourth or fifth round draft options could include Danny Trevathan from Kentucky (373 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and 4 INTs) or maybe Travis Lewis from Oklahoma (116 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 9 INTs in essentially two years playing). Should the Bills look higher, there's always Zach Brown from North Carolina, widely accepted as the top 4-3 OLB in the draft and the type of elite skills that make any defensive coordinator salivate. Though he's had some off the field antics that may raise an eyebrow (he was suspended for the Georgia Tech game), his speed and defensive instincts are just so good that his maturity issues are almost a non-factor. Still, the Bills need more help at other positions and don't really need to take a linebacker in the first couple rounds, as their starters are relatively set now.
Signing Mario Williams changed everything in Buffalo, from Draft needs to position assignment, and though the linebackers seem to have their places now, it remains to be seen how strong the trio are come game time. The lack of depth is a little scary, but a good draft should help and, to be fair, Merriman was really the only injury concern for the linebackers in 2011. Barnett, Morrison, and Sheppard should be looking forward to a good 2012 season across the board, parts of a new look defense that seems to be drawing some attention in a good way again.