State of the Bills: Linebacker

A new strong-side linebacker is needed this offseason

Sal Capaccio
February 04, 2020 - 8:09 pm

My State of the Bills series continues with a look at the linebacker position headed into the 2020 offseason:

Under contract:

  • Tremaine Edmunds
  • Matt Milano
  • Corey Thompson
  • Vosean Joseph
  • Tyrel Dodson
  • Del’Shawn Phillips

Pending Free Agents:

  • Lorenzo Alexander
  • Maurice Alexander
  • Julian Stanford


State of the Position:

The Buffalo Bills have one of the best young linebacker duos in the NFL when it comes to Tremaine Edmunds (currently only 21-years-old) and Matt Milano (25). Neither player really ever comes off the field, regardless of the situation. They are both three-down, athletic linebackers. Edmunds is under contract for two more seasons, plus the team has a fifth-year option they can use in 2022 and he just keeps getting better. Milano, however, is going into the final year of his contract. At some point, the Bills will have to address this. They could even do it before next season begins. But for now, they’re set with two solid, young starters.

The third starter at the position is definitely not coming back. Lorenzo Alexander announced his retirement immediately following the team’s playoff loss to the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card Round. Alexander’s contract was up anyway, so there’s no financial ramifications of his retirement. However, his value inside the locker room as a leader and mentor is impossible to completely replace and will leave a void. On the field, with the team playing so much nickel defense, he was only on the field for about half the defensive snaps all season. While out there, he still contributed with a pair of sacks and 50 total tackles. His ability to play both off the ball and on the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher was an important role over the last few years, and those types of backers aren’t easy to find. He obviously also played a ton of special teams, logging the fourth-most special teams snaps on the team. He also has the second-longest current active streak of games played at the position in the league at 96. So he's been incredibly durable and reliable. Throw all that in and replacing a 36-year-old linebacker is a little harder than it sounds. The team really doesn’t have any true internal options, so they’ll have to look to free agency or the draft to find their 2020 starting strong-side linebacker.

The team is very high on Corey Thompson, who is primarily a weak-side backup for Matt Milano, and also a core special teams player. He’ll be the one to beat for that role going into camp once again in 2020, but his spot is certainly not guaranteed.

The exact same can be said for Julian Stanford, but he’s a pending unrestricted free agent. Considering he’s been in the league seven years, his minimum salary will be higher than other cheaper linebackers they can get to fill his role, and they may want to get a bit younger there, anyway. He could still be re-signed to add to the depth of the position and compete for a spot, but he’s very replaceable.

I really liked what Maurice Alexander brought to the team. He was a versatile defender, able to play a linebacker/safety hybrid role. The Bills used him as a linebacker, and he played most of the snaps in Milano’s place when he missed a game midway through the season. But Alexander is undersized and can’t hold up as a regular at the position. He’s a free agent and shouldn’t be a priority to re-sign, but his versatility is always a plus.

We really don’t know what Vosean Joseph is capable of yet. He was drafted in the fifth round, played limited snaps in the preseason, then was injured late in the final preseason game and placed on injured reserve for the season. He’s fast and hits like a heat-seeking missile, but he also showed wildly undisciplined defensive tendencies on film at Florida. I’m intrigued to see him at training camp, which he’ll be a part of.

Tyrel Dodson had a strong preseason, but he was put on the commissioner's exempt list prior to the season, then suspended six games by the league for a domestic violence arrest that occurred in May. Upon his reinstatement, he was waived by the club, but then signed to the practice squad where he spent the rest of the season, then signed to a future/reserve contract with the club. He’s a middle linebacker who will compete for a backup role to Edmunds.

Del'Shawn Phillips was also signed to a future/reserve deal. He has no prior NFL game experience. 

While a starting strong-side linebacker is needed to replace Lorenzo Alexander, that role has been diminishing more and more for the Bills. They have two three-down linebackers and often play five defensive backs. So they shouldn’t spend huge money trying to fill the role, but it’s still an important spot that needs attention. Considering the current youth at the position and the loss of such a great leader in Alexander, I wouldn’t be surprised if they look to fill the spot with another veteran, then let the younger guys prove they deserve more snaps and even a chance at taking over the starting role.


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