This is the seventh of a series that examines where the Buffalo Bills stand at each position heading into training camp, which begins July 27. Today’s installment looks at linebacker.
Lorenzo Alexander was the lone bright spot on the Buffalo Bills' defense last season.
And that was as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme that wasn't the best fit for most of the defensive players on the team.
This year, with Alexander a strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 alignment, the Bills could get even more all-around production from the man whose 12.5 sacks were third in the NFL last year and landed him in the Pro Bowl.
He also figures to have a stronger supporting cast at his position with the addition of versatile free agent Gerald Hodges and the return of 2016 second-round draft pick Reggie Ragland from the knee injury that caused him to miss all of last season.
Coach Sean McDermott has a track record of getting the most out of his linebackers, something he did during the previous six seasons as defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. The Bills might not have the level of linebacking talent the Panthers do with the likes of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, but they appear to have enough for McDermott and his defensive coaching staff to go about the process of improving the NFL's 19th-ranked defense the past two years.
Here's the breakdown at linebacker:
Returning: Lorenzo Alexander, Preston Brown, Reggie Ragland and Ramon Humber.
Newcomers: Gerald Hodges, Matt Milano, Taylor Vallejo, Jacob Lindsey, Carl Bradford, Anthony Harrell, Abner Logan and Eddie Yarbrough.
Better, worse or the same?: Better.
Alexander was the best story on the team last season. Signed to a one-year contract as a reserve who was only supposed to only help on special teams, he was suddenly pushed into the starting lineup while first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson -- now at end -- recovered from shoulder surgery.
Alexander's work ethic, experience and savvy were enough to convince McDermott to retain him with an extension. Besides the contribution he makes on the field, Alexander will play a vital role in helping others transition to the new scheme and reinforcing McDermott's emphasis on discipline and greater attention to detail.
Although the Bills lost Zach Brown and his 149 tackles (which ranked second in the NFL) to the Washington Redskins in free agency, they might very well have managed to make a significant upgrade by signing Hodges.
Hodges, an excellent athlete who can play outside and in the middle, expected he would be a hotter commodity in the open market. He held out for big money that never came his way before finally settling for a one-year, prove-it deal on May 25. For the second year in a row, the Bills might very well have gotten one of the bigger steals of free agency.
Brown should benefit from being a middle linebacker in a defense that doesn't require nearly as much of the head-spinning, pre-snap calls and adjustments that the one the Bills employed the past two seasons did. He flourished as a rookie in Jim Schwartz's 4-3 scheme in 2014, and is excited about the prospect of having that sort of impact again this season.
It will be interesting to see how Ragland, who was drafted for the same inside-linebacker role he filled in Alabama's 3-4 defense, is able to adjust to being a middle linebacker in a 4-3 alignment. But he has impressed his new coaches with his strong instincts and solid work ethic.
Milano, a fifth-round draft pick from Boston College, and Vallejo, a sixth-rounder from Boise State, have the capacity to provide decent depth on the weak and strong sides, respectively. However, they were acquired to make their strongest impact on special teams.
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