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Bills seem destined to revamp linebacking corps

In 2017, it was the Buffalo Bills' secondary that underwent major reconstruction.

New starting safeties. New starting cornerbacks. Mostly new depth throughout.

Although the Buffalo Bills' defense significantly declined in yards allowed compared to the previous two seasons — when defensive struggles contributed to the firing of Rex Ryan as coach and Doug Whaley as general manager — the secondary stood out as one of the brightest spots on the team.

This year, a similar overhaul looks to be in store for the Bills' linebacking corps.

Whether it will produce similar results is anyone's guess.

For now, the only certainty at linebacker on the Bills is Matt Milano, who supplanted Ramon Humber as the starter on the weak side. He had an impressive rookie season that ended with a hamstring injury he suffered in the regular-season finale at Miami and that kept him out of last Sunday's wild-card playoff loss at Jacksonville.

In 16 games, including five starts (with all but one coming through the final four weeks of the schedule), Milano finished with 49 tackles (32 initial hits and 17 assists). He also had an interception and a forced fumble.

After Milano, question marks abound.

Middle linebacker Preston Brown, a regular starter since his rookie season in 2014, is due to become a free agent. He performed well enough through the offseason and preseason to force the trade that sent 2016 second-round draft pick Reggie Ragland to Kansas City. Brown also led the NFL with 144 tackles.

Yet there's reason to question whether the Bills want him back. If they did, they likely would have extended his contract by now.

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Brown doesn't figure to have the ideal speed or athleticism coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier want at the position. McDermott would prefer having someone similar to Luke Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers middle linebacker McDermott coached for five of the six seasons McDermott spent as the Panthers' defensive coordinator.

"If (returning to the Bills) happens, it happens," Brown told reporters when Bills players cleaned out their dressing cubicles last Monday. "I always want to come back here. I love the city, I love the coaches, but it’s a business so you never know what will happen. … I want to be in the best situation possible, which I believe to be here."

Strong-side starter Lorenzo Alexander has one year left on a contract that calls for a cap hit of $3.4 million. He's 34 and just finished his 11th NFL season. Although Alexander performed well in last Sunday's wild-card playoff loss at Jacksonville and intends to return for a 12th season, the Bills might be inclined to let him go. Cutting Alexander would result in a modest dead-cap penalty of $550,000.

"Obviously, the organization has to make a decision on whether or not they want to keep me and then once that happens, I have to earn my right back on this team," Alexander said last Monday. "Until, obviously, March, the league year is not over. So I’ll still be coming up here, getting treatment, working out to start preparing myself for the offseason.

"I definitely want to get one more in. I really love this organization, love what we were able to build here and I definitely want to continue to be a part of helping this organization take that next step, and that’s winning a playoff game and getting to a championship and winning that."

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As with Brown, Humber is also due to become a free agent. He appeared in 13 games, including nine starts. He was third on the Bills with 83 tackles and second with eight for loss, but lacked the speed and pass-coverage skills that prompted the switch to Milano. That showed up when Humber was beaten badly on Blake Bortles' 1-yard throw to Ben Koyack for the lone touchdown in the Jaguars' 10-3 playoff win.

One reason the Bills could still consider keeping Humber is his solid contributions on special teams.

During their joint season-ending news conference last Tuesday, McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane wouldn't go into specifics about the future of any players. However, McDermott did say he thought the Bills' linebackers "did a nice job."

"I thought Coach (Bob) Babich, who’s a veteran linebacker coach, really established a way of doing things with the position group," McDermott said. "As you saw, over time, their production increased. Like anything, we’re going to look to improve in each way we can, every way we can. If we didn’t. we wouldn’t be doing our job.

"There’s a lot of good that came out of this year. That position, in particular, I thought did some good things, and my hat goes off to those guys."

Beane and McDermott promise there would be a thorough assessment of all phases of the team. Decisions won't strictly be made by them.

They'll gather opinions from every aspect of the football operation, including those from non-coaches.

"It’s a layered approach to our evaluation," the GM said. "We’re going to talk to assistant coaches, we’re going to talk to our medical staff, our training (staff), our strength and conditioning (staff), there will be a lot of parts.

"What did our personnel guys see that are not involved in the meeting rooms? We’re going to take our time. It’ll happen fast, but we’re going to be very thorough. Again, those guys are definitely (going to) be big questions we have to answer."

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