The biggest hole on the Bills' defensive depth chart is at middle linebacker. And the way the free-agent market is shaping up, it seems the best way to fill it will be through the draft.
The Bills chose not to bring back starting middle linebacker Preston Brown, who was a free agent and signed with his hometown Cincinnati Bengals. Brown tied for the league lead with 144 tackles last season (84 total, 60 assists) while playing 99 percent of defensive snaps but wasn't strong in pass coverage and had an up-and-down tenure with the Bills after being a third-round pick in 2014.
Brown's departure left only unproven sixth-round pick Tanner Vallejo on the depth chart at middle linebacker. The Bills hosted veterans such as Cincinnati's Kevin Minter, Arizona's Karlos Dansby and Washington's Will Compton on free-agent visits, but those didn't turn into signings. Compton signed with the Tennessee Titans this week and Minter and Dansby remain unsigned.
That leaves the Bills to find the centerpiece of Sean McDermott's defense though the draft. An important and telling step in that process is that the Bills are reportedly using several of their 30 pre-draft visits on top-rated linebackers.
"There's a lot of areas (to improve on)," McDermott said at last week's NFL meetings. "There's a lot of talk about our middle linebacker position and that's a situation that we're going to continue to evaluate moving forward. (General Manger) Brandon Beane and his staff do a phenomenal job of knowing what's out there and identifying opportunities for us to improve our roster."
Beane also acknowledged last week that linebacker is "a void that we've got to work on."
The Bills are underway with that process. The team has scheduled pre-draft visits with top linebackers Roquan Smith of Georgia and Leighton Vander Esch of Boise State, as well as BYU's Fred Warner, according to reports that surfaced after each player's Pro Day.
Smith, the winner of the Butkus Award given to the nation's best collegiate linebacker, is believed by some to be the top prospect at his position and a strong fit for McDermott's defense. He is seen as a player who could fit in a similar mold as the Panthers' Luke Kuechly, who was named First-Team All-Pro three times while McDermott was his defensive coordinator in Carolina.
Pro Football Focus calls Smith "the class of this year’s linebacker crop" and "a talented and athletic linebacker who perfectly fits the mold of the modern NFL." Smith is slightly undersized at 6-foot-1, 236 pounds, but ran a blazing 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, the second-fastest of any linebacker at the event. The Macon Telegraph reported his scheduled visit with the Bills.
Meanwhile, NFL Network reported that Vander Esch has pre-draft visits "with every team [drafting] from 12-26 except the Ravens, Rams, Chargers." That would include the Bills, who own picks 12 and 21.
Pro Football Focus ranks Vander Esch as its third-best linebacker. "He’s an instinctive linebacker who excels in the run game and is able to work quickly to the back through traffic and bottle up those plays," they wrote, adding that he ranked No. 1 in their run-stop percentage stat but didn't fare as well in pass coverage.
Smith and Vander Esch are projected as first-rounders, so the Bills' path to them likely depends on how they address their quarterback situation. NFL.com graded BYU's Warner as a Day 3 draft pick.
Two top linebackers the Bills haven't been linked to yet are Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds and Alabama's Rashaan Evans.
Edmunds rivals Smith for the top linebacker in the draft and is NFL.com's highest-rated defender. Edmunds is a unique prospect because he is 6-5 and 250 pounds, but also ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. His father, Ferrell, played seven years in the NFL at tight end and was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Dolphins.
Evans earned a first-round grade, too. AL.com reported Evans will visit with the Eagles, Cowboys, Jaguars, Dolphins, Colts, Falcons, Saints and Patriots, but didn't mention the Bills.
Evans has been an interesting case in the pre-draft process because he did not run the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine or either of Alabama's Pro Days. He cited groin injuries suffered during the season and a desire to heal. He posted a vertical jump of 30 inches and a broad jump of 9 foot, 8 inches at the Combine, causing some observers to question his athleticism.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock sees the potential for Edmunds, Smith, Vander Esch and Evans to all be drafted in the first round.
"Those four have the chance to go as off-the-ball linebackers," Mayock said, referencing linebackers that are not considered edge rushers. "Typically, there's only two off-the-ball linebackers. So that would be a big year."