The annual post-draft excitement is back in Buffalo again, but this time it might be warranted. The front office has been completely revamped and the franchise seems to have a direction for the first time in over a decade. After fielding one of the premier defenses in the NFL a few seasons ago, the team took a step backwards under Rex Ryan in 2016. Sean McDermott is apparently very aware of that, and has been aggressive in his attempt to re-establish that unit.
Newcomers like safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer figure to be day-one starters in the Bills secondary. First round draft pick Tre’Davious White is also expected to be a major contributor at the cornerback position. Whether he starts his career in the slot or as a boundary corner, he certainly will be competing with Ronald Darby and Kevon Seymour for significant playing time. Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright were also brought in to compete for a spot on this roster and provide veteran depth at a position that seemed like one of the team’s weakest early in the offseason.
Despite these offseason moves, and a defensive line that still features some of the most talented players in the league, fans are very worried about this defense. Most of the fear stems from one comment from the new head coach at the NFL Owner’s Meeting back in March where Sean McDermott declared that Ramon Humber would be the starter at weak-side linebacker.
Humber, a career special teams role player, has never had more than 50 tackles in a single season. His 3.5 career sacks and four career pass deflections are considerably less than what Bills fans would like to see attached to the name of their starting linebacker.
Throughout the draft process, this was touted by many as the position that needed to be addressed. The decision to not draft an outside linebacker until the fifth round has been met with some criticism especially after Buffalo passed on guys like Reuben Foster, Hassan Reddick, Zach Cunningham and Raekwon McMillan.
Breath Bills fans. It’s going to be okay.
The success of the Carolina Panthers defense under Sean McDermott was largely predicated on the impact of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Clearly neither of those guys are coming out of the tunnel for Buffalo when the season kicks off, but the fact is the Bills will be running a lot of two linebacker sets.
Yes, they will be missing the impact of a guy like Shaq Thompson, who was Carolina’s weak-side linebacker last season, but his snap count percentages varied from game to game anyway. McDermott has said that they will have to get creative at the linebacker position, something that he has experience doing.
Does anybody really believe that the Bills intend to start Ramon Humber at this point? If the answer is yes, do those same people actually believe that the is going to see more snaps per game than Preston Brown, Reggie Ragland, or Lorenzo Alexander?
There is no denying that the Bills have three starting caliber linebackers on their roster as it stands right now. Preston Brown may not seem like a perfect fit at this time, but it’s too early to rule him out of the equation as a starter for this team. He’s adapted to a number of different schemes since being drafted. Expect him to step up and earn significant playing time this season. It will be extremely interesting to see how McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier manage to get Brown and Ragland on the field at the same time.
Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo are talented linebackers who fit the description of what a 4-3 weak-side linebacker should play like. They are both aggressive players who want to get to the ball and hit someone. Their athleticism allows them to drop back into coverage. Milano even has experience playing as a safety.
The concern for both of these players is going to be their size. Both guys are smaller in stature than the ideal linebacker, but their experience and aggressiveness could allow either of them to see substantial snaps this season. There will be growing pains for these two, but with some NFL strength and conditioning, either of these two could be groomed into that Shaq Thompson role down the road.
Many teams don’t have the luxury of three quality starting-caliber linebackers. Should Bills fans expect major contributions from their rookie linebackers this season? Probably not, but they are fifth round draft picks.
They weren’t selected to come in and be day one starters. If Ramon Humber is seeing 50-60% of snaps this season then Bills fans have a right to be concerned, but I just don’t see that as a realistic scenario. It’s still May and there is still some talent in this position group. McDermott has given Bills fans plenty of reason to trust him, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Editor’s babble: Please welcome Joe Geniti as a contributor to our blog. We’re excited to have Joe writing for the blog and look forward to his contributions. You can follow Joe on Twitter @JoeGeniti. Thanks Joe!