ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) – The Bills didn’t bring in an obvious replacement for middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds during free agency or the NFL Draft. It appears likely that their 2023 starter is already on the roster.
Edmunds held the role for the last five years, becoming an immediate starter at age 20 after being drafted nine picks after quarterback Josh Allen in 2018. He earned two trips to the Pro Bowl in the process — and a massive contract from the Chicago Bears this offseason. Replacing his 6-foot-5 frame is no easy task, but the Bills have a handful of candidates they hope can develop into an every-down player who is stout enough to stop the run and nimble enough defend the pass.
Here’s a breakdown of where things stand in early May, roughly three months from the first preseason game.
The Bills have seven linebackers on the roster, plus 2023 draft pick Dorian Williams. Four or five of them could be in the mix to start at middle linebacker.
“We think we have very good competition in there and we’re not going to predetermine who we think is going to win or not,” Bills GM Brandon Beane said after the draft.
Here’s the skinny on each player.
Tyrel Dodson: Dodson has played three seasons with the Bills after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. He started twice at MLB last season while Edmunds was out with injury and led the team in tackles both games.
Terrel Bernard: Bernard was a third-round pick in 2022. Some considered his skillset to be worthy of an even higher selection, though he had several injuries in college that could have caused teams to drop him on their boards. He appeared in 16 games as a rookie, making one start in the Week 9 loss to the Jets while Matt Milano was out.
A.J. Klein: Klein has demonstrated versatility over his two-and-a-half years with the team. He made 15 starts between 2020-21, though Edmunds manned the middle linebacker role. The Bills released Klein prior to the 2022 season in a cost-saving move, but signed him back midway through the season after short stints with the Ravens and Bears. Interestingly, the Bills inserted him into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and entrusted him with the “green dot” – the helmet with on-field communication – for the Thanksgiving game against the Lions just days after picking him up from waivers. He also filled in when Edmunds was out for a few games in 2021.
Baylon Spector: A seventh-round pick in the 2022 draft, Spector appeared in six games last season, mostly on special teams, and made six tackles. He started his college career as a safety at Clemson before transitioning to weak-side linebacker.
Dorian Williams: The Bills’ 2023 third-round pick played weak-side linebacker at Tulane. Williams “has the tools desired for a modern-day developmental linebacker,” according to The Athletic’s Draft Profile, though it added his “awareness vs. the pass isn’t on an NFL level just yet.” Beane indicated during the draft that they plan to start Williams in an outside linebacker role, but didn’t rule out an eventual move to the middle.
Matt Milano: Milano has developed into one of the top weak-side linebackers in the game. The Bills seem set on letting him thrive in that role.
Tyler Matakevich: Matakevich is a three-year member of the team and a core special teams player. He doesn’t factor in much on defense, playing only three snaps last season.
Von Miller: Miller is listed as a linebacker, but that’s really more like an outside linebacker/edge rusher. He’s not a candidate to replace Edmunds once he returns from his knee injury. (But hey, Von Miller is amazing at everything. He could probably play a decent MIKE if he put his mind to it.)
Who played middle linebacker last year when Edmunds was injured?
Edmunds missed three games last year due to injury.
Week 5, 38-3 win vs. Pittsburgh: Dodson started and played 84% of snaps (third-most on defense), making a team-high 11 tackles and recording a sack.
Week 11, 31-23 win vs. Cleveland: Dodson started and played 100% of snaps, logging a team-high 13 tackles.
Week 12, 28-25 win vs. Detroit: Klein started this game just days after being claimed on waivers and played 100% of snaps, making nine tackles (second-most). Dodson also started as the Bills opened with three linebackers, but only played 14% of snaps and made one tackle.
‘Leader in the clubhouse’
Beane made an interesting comment about the linebacker battle while discussing Williams. He indicated Dodson is thought of as having the lead at the moment, given his experience in the defensive system.
“Separate of A.J. (Klein), Dodson has the most experience here. He’s got the most reps in the system,” Beane said. “So today you’d probably have to say he’s the leader in the clubhouse. But these other guys, the second-year guys, Bernard and Spector, are working hard knowing their opportunity, and we got Dorian in here today. We’ll get him up to speed as quick as we can. And when we get to camp, we’ll know by then whether we’re going to truly give him a chance at that MIKE or whether we’ll just say, ‘Hey, Year 1, just learn the outside.’”
Why not sign a veteran?
Beane said the Bills did add a veteran: A.J. Klein. But his overarching point was that they believe in the players on the roster, even if they’ll come with growing pains.
“I know everyone is concerned about it,” Beane said of the middle linebacker vacancy, “but we have good guys who are working hard. We’ve got a veteran defense around them. Yeah, there are going to be mistakes. Yes, if you expect them to be Tremaine Edmunds Week 1, you’re not going to get that. Tremaine played five years for us, went through a lot of reps, some ups and downs as a rookie, working his way.
“These guys are not going to be perfect, and if we expect that from them, we’re setting them up to fail. So I think we have to be fair to them. Sometimes, guys on your roster are there as backups — until you put them out there and give them a chance, you don’t know. So that’s where we’re at. We believe in these guys, and we’re going to give them a chance.”
What else the Bills are saying
GM Brandon Beane was asked about the linebacker position numerous times during draft weekend. Here are some selected quotes.
Beane on how the linebacker room looks after the draft: “Starting with Bernard, you know he’ll definitely get a chance to compete for that MIKE spot. So, he’ll do that. Spector will get a chance at that. Tyrel will get a chance for that. We know A.J. can play in there, Klein, or play outside. Obviously Matt’s going to be an outside-only guy and Dorian, we’ll see. We’re not ruling it out. We’re still talking about maybe we’ll look at him as a guy to get in there and compete at MIKE. We’ve just got to see how much we can get him caught up to what it takes to run this defense. It’ll be a big transition for him. Great young man. He’s eager to try it. We’ll see. Worst case though he would be an outside ‘backer for us this year and then we’ll see next year. But yeah, all those guys that you mentioned, Bernard, Spector, Dodson, are all going to get to get in there and compete for that MIKE linebacker starting role.”
Beane on where new draft pick Dorain Williams fits, and similarities to Bernard: “I would say Dorian is … going to be a little bit faster, a little bit more speed. Bernard made a lot of plays at Baylor off his instinct, feel, knowing where to be. He’s probably more in that A.J. Klein mold when he came out of Iowa State. Maybe not as athletic as Tremaine was coming out. But just super instinctive. Size is one thing, but instincts, feel all that stuff. And so we’ll see where Dorian is. But he made a lot of tackles.”
Beane’s thoughts on their linebackers who lack traditional size: “There are minimums, and they meet the minimum threshold. But long and short of it is it’s also a matchup league. So, you can take a bigger guy who is stout against the run, but you get them in the passing game and you get a slot receiver on him or anything like that and it could be a mismatch from that standpoint. So you got to weigh the passing game versus the run game. Some guys can do both. You’d love a guy who’s athletic enough to match up and stout enough to be firm when they’re trying to run downhill on you. So, you’re going to give up something here or there, but we’re not worried about the guys we have in there that are going to compete for MIKE, what they’re giving up, we think there’s enough advantage for the other (attributes). If it’s their lack of size, we think they’re going to be able to play the pass game.”
The Bills have at least three and as many as five candidates to start at middle linebacker. They’ll know by training camp whether rookie Dorian Williams will be in the mix. Based on Beane’s comments, Terrel Bernard and Tyrel Dodson could be the top contenders, but they aren’t ruling out Baylon Spector, and they trust A.J. Klein to fill in, too. Competition for the middle linebacker position is expected to be a top item to watch during training camp.
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Nick Veronica is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as the Digital Executive Producer in 2021. He previously worked at NBC Sports and The Buffalo News. You can follow Nick on Facebook, Twitter and Threads. See more of his work here.