ORLANDO, Fla. – Derrick Henry had one very distinct memory of Tremaine Edmunds.
“Big as hell,” the Tennessee Titans’ star running back said Thursday of the Buffalo Bills’ second-year linebacker. “He was big as hell.”
Henry and Edmunds crossed paths in Week 5 of the regular season, with the Bills leaving Tennessee with a 14-7 victory.
Henry was “limited” to 20 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown in the game. That’s a pretty good day for most running backs, but Henry isn’t most running backs. A 6-foot-3, 247-pound physical specimen, he ran for an NFL-leading 1,540 yards during the 2019 regular season.
The Bills were one of just five teams to hold him to fewer than 80 yards in a single game and one of just four teams to hold him to fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. Edmunds, of course, played a large part in that, finishing with five tackles, including one for a loss, and two passes defensed.
Henry and Edmunds are on the same side this week as teammates on the AFC squad for Sunday’s Pro Bowl (3 p.m., ESPN, ABC). Following Thursday’s practice – if it can be called that – at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex inside Walt Disney World, Henry admitted he learned something new about Edmunds later in the regular season.
“I didn't know he was that young until they played the Steelers,” he said of the 21-year-old Edmunds. “He's a big dude. He's fast, physical. He's going to be one of the great ones when it's all said and done.”
Henry wasn’t the only Pro Bowl running back to come away from a game against the Bills with a positive impression of Edmunds. The Ravens’ Mark Ingram was held to just 50 yards on 15 carries (3.3 yards per carry) in Baltimore’s Week 14 win over the Bills. Edmunds made eight tackles in that game, including two for losses, and also intercepted a Lamar Jackson pass.
“He's big, fast, physical,” Ingram said of Edmunds. “He runs with speed sideline to sideline. Great game awareness. So he was just a linebacker who you truly had to know where he was at, because he can make an impact on your game and affect your game in a negative way if you don't account for him.”
The Bills certainly hope that continues. Edmunds’ first Pro Bowl appearance comes after a season in which he finished with 115 tackles, 10 of which went for losses, 1.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, one interception and nine passes defensed. Edmunds was a first alternate for the Pro Bowl. He got into the game when New England’s Dont’a Hightower withdrew because of injury.
“It feels good just being out here with all these guys,” Edmunds said Thursday. “Just getting wisdom from all of them, hearing how they play the game and hearing different people's experiences, man, it's a good feeling.”
Edmunds became the first player in NFL history to record two seasons of 100-plus tackles by the age of 21. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, his physical tools are obvious. It was his mental processing, though, that needed to catch up. It’s easy to forget that Edmunds changed positions coming out of college, so he had a lot of learning to do. He’s had plenty of opportunity to do just that. Heading into the meaningless season finale against the Jets, he had taken every defensive snap in 2019.
Along with Matt Milano, the Bills have a pair of young linebackers they trust to play in all situations. Milano built a strong case to earn a trip to Orlando, as well, finishing with 100 tackles (seven for losses), 1.5 sacks, seven quarterback hits, nine passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
“This is going into our third year together, so we've got to grow, continue to feed off each other,” Edmunds said. “We know what each other is thinking out there, and that lets us play fast. We each have that mindset we want to be the best. That's what it starts with. Guys feed off each other’s energy, so come in from day one with the mindset of getting better and making sure you're leading by example. Bring other guys along with you.”
That’s a role the Bills will ask Edmunds to expand on in 2020. The team lost one of its most respected leaders when veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander announced his retirement after the playoff loss to Houston. Edmunds knows that he’ll be counted on to fill at least some of that void.
“That's a big voice that we lost -- a great leader,” he said. “Now is the time for young guys to step up, a guy like myself. Everybody is going to have to lead in their own way out there. That's a challenge I'm ready to take on, but it's not just myself. We've got to have other leaders out there, too. We've got a lot of great young guys, a young nucleus to grow from. We need all those guys to step up.”
Edmunds did that before the Bills’ Week 11 win at Miami. He took the rare step of addressing the entire team during a meeting the night before an important game against the Dolphins. The next day, he went out and had a career-high 12 tackles, a half sack and a pass defensed in the win.
“I'm going to continue to do my best to lead this team,” he said. “I'm the leader of this defense. Those guys rely on me to get things handled, get them lined up. This offseason, I'm going to hit it hard and control what I can control -- and that's the work I put into it.”
That approach makes it easy to see what the Bills like about Edmunds – and why General Manager Brandon Beane moved up in the first round of the 2018 draft to make sure he got his guy. In an interview Beane did with Sports Illustrated recently following the retirement of Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly – the heart and soul of the Carolina defense – Beane had this to say:
“He’s the rare guy who had it all. He’s super smart, his instincts are a 12 on a scale of 1–10 and his work ethic’s at the same level. And it’s very rare that someone with the instincts, smarts and athleticism he had still has drive like he did. On Thursday nights during the week, I’d walk down there and he’s got every linebacker still there with them, teaching them how to watch film, what to look for. The coaches would be gone, and I’d see them grabbing food that was set out for the coaches and going back to work. I don’t know many like him. Usually people that have the talent might not have the same drive. So he had the whole thing and he wanted to help others.”
The author of the piece, Albert Breer, makes the connection that knowing what Kuechly did for Carolina is a big reason the Bills were so aggressive in landing Edmunds.
“It’s an honor,” Edmunds said of being mentioned in the same breath as Kuechly. “Luke’s a great player – someone I look up to. Hearing that, man, it means a lot.
“It just makes me want to get into the lab and go harder. That's what I'm going to do. I'm looking forward to it, and everybody else on our team is looking forward to it as well. We're very hungry. Everybody out there wants to be great, and we're not going to settle for anything less than that.”