Monday, 21 October 2019

Depth at linebacker will be a battle at Bills training camp – Buffalo News

This is the seventh part of a series looking at 10 questions facing the Bills entering training camp, which begins July 25. Today’s question: Where is depth the biggest concern?

Where are the Buffalo Bills’ biggest worries when injuries strike during the 2019 season?

It has not been a huge issue under coach Sean McDermott’s reign the past two seasons.

The Bills ranked fourth in the NFL in 2018 in terms of fewest games lost by starters to injury, according to a study by The News. Buffalo ranked tied for the ninth fewest games lost by starters in their playoff season of 2017.

Here’s a look at the three positions where the Bills’ depth is most uncertain and how the roster spots on those units might be resolved in training camp:

LINEBACKER: The Bills have two budding stars — and maybe superstars? — in middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and weak-side linebacker Matt Milano. They never come off the field.

If either one goes down for an extended period, it’s a big worry for the defense.

The backup to strong-side linebacker Lorenzo Alexander also is uncertain but it’s of a tad less importance. The Bills used their base, 4-3 defensive front on only 21% of snaps last season, according to News statistics. Still, that spot is a concern, as well.

Julian Stanford is the favorite to stick as the backup to Edmunds in the middle for a second straight season. Stanford, undrafted out of Wagner College, is a six-year veteran who has made 11 career starts. In his lone start for the Bills last season, subbing for Edmunds against Chicago, he played well. Even though the Bills lost, 41-9, they held the Bears to 64 rushing yards and 190 total yards.

Stanford’s strength is speed. He ran the 40-yard dash in a reported 4.51 seconds out of college, which is in the 92nd percentile for his position.

That’s also the strength of the Bills’ other backup linebackers. Deon Lacey and Corey Thompson are in a tight battle to back up Milano. Lacey ran a blazing 4.51 out of college. Thompson, who played the Week 16 New England game in place of an injured Milano, ran a quality 4.66 out of college.

Lacey led the Bills for a second straight season last year in special teams snaps, playing 68%. Stanford ranked sixth in special teams participation and second among linebackers at 51%.

Special teams will be a big factor in determining the backup linebackers.

“If it’s not a guy that’s going to come in and win a starting job, I am going to want to know what he’s done on teams,” said General Manager Brandon Beane, referring to all positions.

While 40 times can be overrated, that’s not the case in picking core special teamers.

“Those are one of the things where you will pay a little more attention to the 40 time,” Beane said. “What’s he rolling down that field at 40, 50 yards? A lot of these guys getting timed, how many times do they really run 40 yards? But I think those measurements do show up more in special teams.”

Figure Stanford and either Lacey or Thompson for two of the backup spots. The Bills are likely to keep fifth-round pick Vosean Joseph, who is raw but showed a hell-on-wheels style at the University of Florida.

The Bills signed another veteran special teamer in Maurice Alexander from Seattle. He’s a converted safety who could fill a hybrid, big-nickel role at linebacker. Can he beat out Lacey or convince the coaches to keep seven linebackers? The Bills have kept six LBs each of the past two seasons.

EDGE RUSHER: A case could be made that Jerry Hughes is the most indispensable player on the team because he’s the only true, NASCAR-style speed rusher coming off the edge.

The Bills hope a healthier Trent Murphy plays much better in his second season with the team. Maybe Shaq Lawson gets a little better. But neither are true edge-benders. Both look a lot better as a complement opposite the speedy threat of Hughes. The Bills need Hughes to stay healthy. Will the Bills be satisfied with either Mike Love or Eddie Yarbrough as the No. 4 DE?

TIGHT END: The foot injury to Tyler Kroft, the prospective starter signed from Cincinnati, throws the position into even more uncertainty. Can third-round pick Dawson Knox catch on quickly enough to start? Will the Bills use veteran Lee Smith in more than a blocking-TE role? Will young Jason Croom take a leap forward? The Bills can ill afford more injuries at tight end.



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