A compelling case can be made for Matt Milano being one of the best draft picks in the entire NFL in 2017.
A relative unknown coming out of Boston College, the Buffalo Bills had reporters and fans scrambling for their draft guides when Milano’s name was announced in the fifth round. His scouting profile on nfl.com projected Milano to go in the sixth or seventh round, with analyst Lance Zierlein concluding that he was “undersized for the linebacker spot, but extremely tough and aggressive. A little tight-hipped and might struggle to finish tackles that aren’t right in front of him, but he brings as much pound-for-pound force behind his tackles as anyone in the draft.”
Give Bills coach Sean McDermott credit for seeing something in Milano others missed.
“You go back to his background and what different positions he played. He played in space quite a bit and so you saw some of the overall athleticism that we’re seeing today,” McDermott said last December. “Smart player, and each game he gets a little bit better, which is important.”
Milano took over from Ramon Humber as a permanent starter in Week 14 against Indianapolis – later than most outside observers thought the switch should have been made. That’s because the rookie had a knack for making big plays when he was on the field. Playing in all 16 games and starting five, he took 40.6 percent of the defensive snaps and made 43 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and scored one touchdown.
Milano’s impact on the Bills’ defense was best illustrated by his absence in the playoff loss at Jacksonville. A hamstring injury in Week 17 against Miami kept Milano off the field against the Jaguars, who scored their only touchdown of the game when tight end Ben Koyack beat Humber at the goal line for a score.
It’s impossible to know whether Milano would have made a touchdown-saving play, but the Bills surely wished he was in there to find out. According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, Milano allowed just 27 catches for 271 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. He ranked 20th among 4-3 outside linebackers in coverage, but was even better overall, at 14th.
Looking ahead to 2018, Milano will no longer have the luxury of being a pleasant surprise. He’s penciled in as a starter, and figures to be one of two linebackers to play in every situation (rookie Tremaine Edmunds is the other).
The big question is whether Milano’s level of play can stay consistent when his workload increases. He took 449 defensive snaps as a rookie, a number that will at least double if he plays as much as expected.
It had to be at least somewhat concerning for the Bills that Milano missed some practice time in the spring because of another hamstring injury. His strong rookie season brought with it heightened expectations for 2018. To meet them, Milano will need to stay healthy.