This is the fifth in a series of stories previewing NFL free agency, which starts March 18. Today's installment: linebackers.
Buffalo Bills fans will start to find out in free agency just how many people it takes to replace retiring linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.
More than one almost surely is the answer, especially if one factors in his value as a leader in the locker room.
The primary Alexander role the Bills need to fill is that of a strong-side linebacker who can set the edge against the run when the Bills need to play their base 4-3 defense.
Keep in mind, the Bills played their base front only a little more than 20% of the snaps in 2019 because teams spread the field with receivers so often. However, having a stout linebacker on the edge is critical when opponents power up.
New England, for instance, likes to line up with two backs or two tight ends to play physical. A poor strong-side linebacker is an invitation to get pushed around. NFL teams run the ball out of two-tight-end sets about a quarter of the time.
Alexander also rushed the passer on about 40% of his snaps in 2019, according to News charts.
If the Bills can find a strong-side linebacker with some pass-rush ability, great. But that’s a bonus.
General Manager Brandon Beane is trying to get a head start on filling the spot. The Bills hosted Christian Kirksey, recently released by the Cleveland Browns. Kirksey, 27, has played a lot of weak-side linebacker in his six-year career but has more heft, at 235, than Bills Will linebacker Matt Milano. Kirksey is speedy and could play either side. While the Browns used him minimally as a rusher, he has good blitzing ability. He rushed the passer about 12% of the time in 2017 and had 3.5 sacks.
Kirksey has suitors, having also visited Las Vegas and Green Bay.
The biggest name familiar to Bills fans who could fill both of Alexander’s roles is New England’s Kyle Van Noy. Even though he has played part of the time in a 3-4 front for the Patriots, Van Noy, soon to be 29, is great at setting the edge and is more effective rushing the passer than Alexander. However, he may cost $9 million a year – or more – and probably would fit best returning to the Pats. Will they pay him if the bidding gets high?
Two young players without Van Noy’s name recognition who bring edge-setting and pass-rushing ability are Tennessee’s Kamalei Correa and Green Bay’s Kyler Fackrell. Another promising young player who can play the strong side but who has little edge-rush experience is Atlanta’s De’Vondre Campbell.
Correa, 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds, plays in the Titans’ 3-4 front but sets the edge on the strong side and was used as an edge rusher. He finished the season strong, with six sacks over the last eight games. He turns 26 in April. The expectation is the Titans will make a strong pitch to get him back, but he’s set to test the market.
Fackrell, 6-5 and 245, has been a stand-up rush man in Green Bay’s 3-4 front. He has been described by longtime Packers writer Bob McGinn of the Athletic as “a poor man’s Bryce Paup.”
In 2018, Fackrell had 10.5 sacks and played 58% of the snaps. He started the last half of the year due to injury. In 2019, he had 1.5 sacks and played 40% of the snaps, although his pressure rate actually was slightly better than 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. As a pass-rusher, he’s a try-hard, effort guy. His run defense hasn't been dominant.
Campbell, 6-3 and 232, is a 26-year-old four-year starter who’s a much better athlete than Fackrell. He was the Falcons’ leading tackler the past two years. Like most of the Atlanta defense, he struggled over a 1-7 start last season but got better in the second half of the season. He has played three downs all four seasons. He’s not going to want to play less, and he would not be playing ahead of Milano, although the Bills could play more three-backer sets on some third downs, as Sean McDermott did in Carolina with linebacker Shaq Thompson. Given Campbell's youth and athleticism, he could be in demand.
An older Sam linebacker who will be in less demand than the above trio is the Raiders’ Tahir Whitehead, recently released in a cost-saving move. He'd be a stop-gap options for the Bills.
Whitehead, 6-2, 241, has posted 100-plus tackles four straight years. He’s soon to be 30, too, and he is not a pass rusher. He’s used to being a three-down linebacker, although his edge setting is much better than his coverage. After Week 5 last season, he shifted to middle backer, so he offers some versatility.
Some of the top names at linebacker in the free-agent market don’t fit the strong-side linebacker mold.
The Rams’ Cory Littleton and the Browns’ Joe Schobert will get big deals. They’re weak-side Will linebackers, Milano’s position.
Green Bay's Blake Martinez, 26, plays inside in a 3-4 scheme but he doesn’t have the long arms or frame to be an ideal Sam linebacker. Chicago’s Nick Kwiatkoski, 26, is an up-and-coming player who has looked best as an inside linebacker. Philadelphia’s Kamu Grugier-Hill, 25, is 6-2, 230 with upside, but he looks best as a coverage, Will linebacker.