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Bills position series: Linebacker Matt Milano eyes free agency, causing potential hole

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Mahomes wiggles free

Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano (58) pressures Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) during the second quarter of the AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. 

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This is the eighth in a series assessing the Buffalo Bills’ status at each position. Today’s installment looks at linebacker.

Matt Milano’s contract situation is one of the more important questions facing the Buffalo Bills this offseason, and the answer will have considerable ripple effects when it comes to the team’s linebacker depth, pass defense and roster construction.

The 2017 fifth-round pick is a pending unrestricted free agent and might command top dollar on the open market after establishing himself as one of the top coverage linebackers in the NFL, albeit one who has missed time because of injuries each season.

Milano, 26, missed six games with a strained hamstring and partially torn left pectoral muscle this past season, and was limited in several other games, but ramped up his production and snap count in December and played nearly every defensive snap in the postseason alongside middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who was voted to a second consecutive Pro Bowl.

The 6-foot, 223-pound Milano started just five of 10 games he played during the regular season. He recorded 45 tackles, a career-high 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups and an interception. In the playoffs, Milano and Edmunds tied for the team high with 25 tackles and three pass breakups.

Re-signing Milano would reward a homegrown player, a fundamentally sound strategy that General Manager Brandon Beane espoused last year when inking cornerback Tre’Davious White and left tackle Dion Dawkins to long-term deals. Spotrac projects Milano will receive a three-year, $41.5 million contract with an annual average salary of $13.8 million, which might be too rich for the Bills considering the team’s tight salary cap situation and the need to eventually sign Josh Allen to a big contract.

A.J. Klein solidified his position on the team by filling in admirably while Milano was injured. Klein is the strong-side linebacker in the base, 4-3 front. He showed he can handle the weak-side role in a pinch. But the weak-side, every-down linebacker role increasingly demands a speed player. The Bills will have to find someone from outside the organization via free agency or the draft if Milano departs.

Edmunds, the big and rangy quarterback of the defense, struggled through a shoulder injury for a stretch after being knocked out of the season opener but started 15 games. Edmunds finished the regular season with 119 tackles, which were second on the team behind only safety Jordan Poyer and ranked among the top 20 in the NFL for a third consecutive season. Edmunds also had two sacks and three pass breakups. He turns 23 in May.

The Bills must decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Edmunds’ rookie contract by May 3, but it seems a foregone conclusion that the 2018 first-round pick is in the team’s plans.

Klein, who turns 30 in July, was a fifth-round pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2013. He signed with the Bills last offseason and was quickly thrust into a prominent role when Milano was injured in the opener. Klein started 11 games and appeared in all 16.

After a slow start, he began to thrive. Klein finished the regular season with 75 tackles, five sacks, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles, setting career highs in each category. He also recovered a fumble. He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after a breakout performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 12.

Klein is due a $1.6 million roster bonus on March 21, the fifth day of the league year, and is guaranteed $3.2 million of his $4.1 million base salary in 2021, according to Spotrac.

Under contract: Tyrel Dodson, Tremaine Edmunds, A.J. Klein, Tyler Matakevich.

Pending free agents: Matt Milano, Andre Smith.

Strengths: The Bills have two solid starting linebackers under contract in Edmunds and Klein, regardless of whether Milano is retained or signs with another team in free agency. They’re also high on Dodson, 22, and Matakevich, 28, who are stalwarts on special teams and serve as capable backups. Dodson started two games this season.

Weaknesses: Depth and pass defense, should Milano sign elsewhere, in which case it’s reasonable to expect the Bills to add a veteran to the mix through free agency and/or draft a linebacker with coverage ability with a midround pick. The Bills’ run defense is another concern. Buffalo allowed 4.6 yards per carry this season, which ranks among the bottom third in the NFL, but the performance could be attributed to a number of factors, including defensive tackle Star Lotulelei’s decision to opt out because of Covid-19 concerns.

Key question: Will the Bills re-sign Milano?

Draft priority: Low.

Free agency priority: Medium.

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