Sal's AFC East position battles: Linebackers

Scheme changes could play a role in the division this season

Sal Capaccio
July 13, 2019 - 9:03 pm

Photo: Brett Carlsen - Getty Images


In my latest installment of AFC East Position Battles, I take a look at and rank each of the teams' linebacker units. Like the defensive line, this can be a bit of a challenging since each team runs a different type of scheme and has their linebackers playing different roles. In fact, the New England Patriots had only two linebackers on the field for a majority of their snaps last season, and Miami Dolphins new head coach Brian Flores, who was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, will bring the same scheme with him to South Florida. The Buffalo Bills have three main linebackers and the New York Jets will use four, but in a hybrid scheme. That’s what makes this position challenging, but also interesting.

See the tweet below with all the linebackers listed for each team and feel free to comment on it, then see my rankings afterward:


1.) New York Jets

The Jets get the nod for the top spot here for the same reason they were pushed down on my defensive line rankings: running a 3-4. As opposed to the limits they have on the defensive line, here it gives them more depth and options and they have solid-to-excellent-players in each spot. New York made one of the biggest splashes on the defensive side of the ball in free agency when they signed C.J. Mosley to a five-year, $85 million contract. Mosley had been the heart of the Ravens’ defense for five years, twice finishing in the top-10 in the NFL in solo tackles, and averaging close to 120 total stops per-year. Mostly running a 3-4 means Mosely will be paired inside with Avery Williamson, a very good, productive player who had 120 total tackles himself last year. Together, they should be excellent against the run. Flanking them on the outside will be Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland, who combined for 12 sacks last season. But the Jets don’t have a true pass rusher. It’s more by committee and situational. They drafted Jachai Polite to help in that area, but along with Blake Cashman, that’s two rookies they may be relying on to play significant backup roles.


2.) Buffalo Bills 

The Bills may have the best three starters in the division in Matt Milano, Lorenzo Alexander, and Tremaine Edmunds between them. Milano and Edmunds are two of the better young linebacker duos in the league. Milano is well under-the-radar as a playmaker and overall athlete. He can play sideline-to-sideline, cover, and finds ways to shoot gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, despite being a bit undersized. In fact, he was second to only Jerry Hughes last year in tackles for loss with 12, despite missing three full games with a broken leg. Edmunds had some early-season pass coverage struggles but seemed to figure them out as the year went on. He wound up the team’s leading tackler with 121 total stops. He was one of the youngest starters in NFL history last year and just turned 21 this offseason. His ceiling is extremely high. Then there’s Alexander, who just keeps kicking Father Time’s butt. At 35-years-old last year, he filled up the stat sheet every week, finishing with 74 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, nine passes defended, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. I have the Bills second to the Jets mainly because of the depth behind those three. Deon Lacey, Corey Thompson, and Julian Stanford all know the game and can be relied on to fill in when called upon, but the trio have a combined 12 NFL starts amongst them, and only three over the last two seasons (Thompson was a rookie last year). In a short-term situation, the Bills should be fine, but if any of them has to start for an extended period of time, there may be a significant drop-off. Rookie Vosean Joseph and veteran Maurice Alexander will push the three for primary backup roles. 


3.) New England Patriots

Veteran Dont'a Hightower has been the leader of this group for the last several years, but Kyle Van Noy is ascending to that role. He was terrific in last year’s playoffs and run to the Super Bowl, collecting three sacks and 18 total tackles, but also emerging as the leader of the defense. Hightower is still a valuable player for the unit, but did have a dip in production in the regular season last year, collecting only one sack and failing to have at least 50 total tackles for the first time in his career - other than an injured 2017 when he played only five games - before making a big impact in the playoffs. On the field with the two will be……well, that’s a question, because the Patriots generally use a only a two-linebacker set. Last year, Van Noy and Hightower were the only linebackers on the field for more than 50% of the defensive snaps, playing 90 and 74%, respectively. After that was Elandon Roberts at only 41%, then another huge drop-off to Ja'Whaun Bentley at 13%. Both players are still there, but now also joined by Jamie Collins, who returns to the team after two and a half seasons in Cleveland. Collins posted 104 total tackles and four sacks last year for the Browns and should be a nice addition to a linebacking corps that has to find consistent depth beyond the top-two. Christian Sam spent his rookie year on injured reserve and Brandon King has been strictly a special teams player his first four years in the league.


4.) Miami Dolphins

Like the Patriots, the Dolphins will mostly use only two linebackers on the field for most snaps. Barring injury, those two are almost always going to be Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso. Neither is on the field to get to the quarterback or be major pieces in pass coverage. Alonso had three interceptions last season, McMillan didn’t have any, and neither linebacker had a sack. But both rack up huge tackle numbers. 125 total tackles for Alonso last season, 105 for McMillan. When the Dolphins do play a third linebacker it will most likely be Jerome Baker, a third round pick a year ago who collected 79 total tackles and three sacks. After that, just like most of the rest of Miami’s roster, there’s a ton of inexperience and question marks. Mike Hull has started five games in four NFL seasons. Quentin Poling has yet to play an NFL snap after spending last year on the practice squad. Chase Allen has been a reserve for two seasons, starting five games. He had three total tackles last year. After that, there are several rookies who the team hopes can make an impression in camp and make an impact, including fifth round pick Andrew Van Ginkel.

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