Written by Thomas Frank Carr
For the first time under Head Coach Sean McDermott, the Buffalo Bills were not a team highlighted by their defense in 2020. After he and General Manager Brandon Beane spent the last two seasons building up the offense, Josh Allen and Co. took off. Yet it wasn’t just that the offense out-performed the defense, the defense genuinely took a step back last year. We’ll examine where each unit stands heading into the offseason with The State Of the Bills.
The man in the middle for the Buffalo Bills defense is one of the most polarizing players on the team. Some will look at his age – 23 years old at the start of the 2021 season – two Pro Bowl appearances and the fact that he’s amassed 355 tackles in his first three seasons to profile a player on the rise.
Others will look at advanced numbers like PFF’s passer rating when targeted and say that only five linebackers have given up a higher passer rating over the last three seasons than Edmunds’ 111.0 mark as evidence that he’s struggled so far. After playing over three thousand snaps in the NFL, Edmunds remains very much a case in perception. For their part, the Bills continue to speak highly of Edmunds as a leader on defense.
“I think more than anything, the area I saw him grow the most in was just his impact as a leader, his impact in terms of his personality coming out on our defense and his intensity. So this is all growing opportunities for our young linebacker,” Sean McDermott said at his season-ending press conference.
Impact is the important word for Edmunsd though. The 6-5, 250 pound physical specimen ran a 4.54 coming out of Virginia Tech and should profile as an elite run stuffer. Yet Pro Football Reference has him with just four tackles for loss in 2020, which is 162nd among defenders. Does the scheme and the lack of block-eating defensive tackles hurt his production to a degree? Yes. But four tackles-for-loss is alarming for a player who should be on his way to breakout stardom.
In coverage, the former Hokie has given up the 6th most passing yards at the linebacker position in two of his first three seasons. It’s clear that despite the Pro Bowls or the tackle numbers, Edmunds has struggled to make consistent impact plays that would reflect his physical profile and draft status.
Heading into his fourth season, the Bills will have to decide if they will pick up his fully guaranteed, 13 million dollar fifth-year option by May. The Bills have brought back their people whenever they have been able to and Edmunds was anointed a cornerstone of their defense from the moment General Manager Brandon Beane traded up to the 16th overall pick to select him. The Bills will likely pick up his option to literally buy more time.
On the flip side, there are few better coverage linebackers in football than recently re-signed Matt Milano. The team’s long-term view at the position became clear on the eve of free agency when the fourth-year linebacker signed with the Bills for four years and 44 million dollars. The contact, worth roughly 10 million dollars per year, makes Milano only the 10th highest paid player at his position.
Milano struggled like the rest of the defense in 2020, which notably included another injury absence in the middle of the season for the oft-injured linebacker who hasn’t completed a full season in any of his four years with the Bills. Milano also struggles as a tackler. PFF credits him with 54 over the course of his career, which is a troubling number for any defender. Yet the former safety makes up for it in coverage, with five interceptions and 11 passes defensed since 2017. Unlike Edmunds Milano has given up over 10 yards a reception only once in his career and is widely regarded as one of the best cover men in football.
With a likely return of fans and some normality in 2021, defenses should have an easier time deafening high-powered offenses when at home. While it’s not a very complicated or sexy analysis, Milano and the rest of the defenders in the NFL should enjoy a bit of a rebound next season simply because of crowd noise. Milano is an important part of the Bills coverage unit, which has ranked as one of the best under McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslies Frasier and provides stability in the linebacker room with the uncertain future of Edmunds inside.
Klein is yet another former Carolina Panther that has found his way onto the Bills roster and has gotten a surprisingly large contract from the Bills. The soon-to-be 30 year-old box linebacker signed a three-year 18 million dollar contract last offseason as the team’s third ‘backer. Klein does not present the same hope as Edmunds’ youth and notoriety, nor Milano’s skills in coverage. Yet he still presentes the same weaknesses, with 17 missed tackles last season and ranked third-to-last in tackling efficiency per PFF. He’s locked into the roster this season with a 5.6 million dollar dead cap hit according to overthecap.com which means he’s also locked into his rotational starting role. Hopefully for the Bills, another year in the defensive system will yield better results.
Everyone’s favorite special teamer secured his return in 2021 with a one-year contract extension to lower his cap hit this year and provide relief to the Bills crunch at the top. Matakevich only played on defense in six games last season with most of his playing time coming in mop up duty against the Dolphins in Week 17. His real role resides on special teams where he’s been one of the standout players on that unit in the NFL over his five seasons in the league. Roles like his are never guaranteed but the former Temple Owl will be in Buffalo for at least one more season.
The list of former Carolina Panthers on the Buffalo Bills roster is so extensive that you forget some of them, like linebacker Andre Smith. The 2018 seventh round draft pick of the Panthers spent his first year in Buffalo on special teams much like Matakevich and will be back in 2021 on a modest two-year deal. Smith does offer some upside on defense as the former Tarheel is a speedy, undersized linebacker with range.
The Bills certainly don’t lack youth in the linebacking room with only players over the age of 30 at the moment and only Milano (26) and Klein (29) over the age of 25. Dodson checks in at 22 years old was another special team contributor last season for the 10 games he was active. The former UDFA out of Texas A&M is another project linebacker with good speed and better size at 6-2, 242 pounds than some of the other Bills players at the position. As always, his spot on the roster is tenuous with the 2021 NFL Draft coming up at the end of April.