This is the seventh of a 10-part series that examines how well the Buffalo Bills have addressed each position during the offseason. Today’s installment looks at linebacker.
No position on the Bills has undergone as drastic a makeover as linebacker.
If things go as planned, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland will prove to be two of the more important foundational pieces of the defense for years to come. That was the driving force behind Rex Ryan wanting Lawson and Ragland to be his top two draft picks. Instant, but also sustainable, upgrades for a team that was in no position to make any major outside free-agent investments.
The plan experienced a glitch last week when Lawson underwent surgery to repair his right shoulder, which the outside linebacker injured as a freshman at Clemson. He could miss anywhere from five to eight regular-season games, raising some questions about the extent of the impact he'll make as a rookie.
Ragland also has a health issue, an enlarged aorta that he and the Bills insist won't give him any problems. Where have we heard that one before?
But when Lawson and the former standout inside linebacker from Alabama are on the field at the same time, it's fair to expect the Bills can take some steps toward improving the NFL's 19th-ranked defense last year.
Here's the breakdown at linebacker:
Returning: Jerry Hughes, Preston Brown, Manny Lawson, IK Enemkpali, Randell Johnson and Kevin Reddick.
Newcomers: Shaq Lawson (first-round draft pick, Clemson), Reggie Ragland (second-round draft pick, Alabama), Zach Brown (FA), Lorenzo Alexander (FA), Eric Striker (UDFA, Oklahoma) and Bryson Albright (UDFA, Miami, OH).
Better, worse or the same?: Much better.
There's just no getting around that the optics of Lawson's surgery right after his minimal physical exertion in rookie minicamp are terrible. The way the whole situation unfolded, with Doug Whaley and Lawson quickly shooting down a draft-night report that the operation would eventually be needed, made everyone involved look bad: Whaley, Ryan, Lawson, and members of the Bills' medical staff.
However, it doesn't necessarily mean that selecting Lawson with the 19th overall choice was a mistake.
He's a highly talented pass-rusher and has the size and strength to set the edge. He's capable of doing all that his predecessor, Mario Williams, did when he was motivated to play well, plus bring some junkyard-dog attitude that Williams lacked.
The Bills envision Lawson drawing enough blocking attention so that fellow outside linebacker Jerry Hughes and tackle Marcell Dareus can rebound from their five- and two-sack seasons, respectively, in 2015.
The great unknown, of course, is when will Lawson have the chance to prove that he was worth the wait? Until then, another Lawson, veteran Manny, will take his place and do his best to at least offer some stability with his experience and intelligence. His play might not be spectacular, but it shouldn't be disastrous, either.
As the replacement for Nigel Bradham, who joined Philadelphia in free agency, Ragland is expected to bring improvement to the Bills' inside-linebacker corps on multiple levels. First, he should excel at consistently filling the right gaps against the run. The Crimson Tide's defense has enough similarities to Ryan's scheme to allow Ragland to make a fairly smooth transition when it comes to knowing his assignments. Ragland also figures to become an asset to the vast communication required by the defense, an area where Bradham and Preston Brown had all sorts of problems last season.
Ragland does have deficiencies when it comes to man-to-man pass coverage on running backs, but that's overshadowed by his many strengths.
Here's more food for thought: Free agents Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander look like they're capable of providing solid depth, and Alexander has a strong reputation for his work on special teams.
One of the most intriguing newcomers here is 6-foot, 221-pound Eric Striker, a rookie from Oklahoma. His lack of size caused him to be ignored by all 32 NFL teams during the draft, resulting in an inspirational video of how he handled the snub while surrounded by family and friends that went viral. He's one of those high-energy, fun-loving personalities that already has many fans pulling for him to make the team.