(WKBW) — As the sting from the end of the 2018 season starts to lessen for the Buffalo Bills, the reality of the offseason begins for the front office and coaching staff. And in doing so, they're putting together a strategy of how to navigate the offseason -- from free agency to the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the weeks pass by teams, get closer and closer to the annual offseason deadlines. In preparation, 7ABC will take an in-depth look at the current roster while evaluating what happened in 2018, what it could tell us as to the team's plans for 2019, and some author recommendations of how to march forward. The grades attached to each player is the result of an in-depth film study done by 7ABC every week through the 2018 season.
Our first look at the defense, we'll begin with the linebackers on the Bills roster:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
SLB Lorenzo Alexander
2018 Season GPA: 3.19 (Snap Count: 630)
2019 Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 35 (5/31/1983)
- What an incredible year it was for the 35-year-old Lorenzo Alexander. In 2017, the Bills struggled early on to figure out how to best use Alexander but figured it out by the end of the season. In 2018, armed with two young linebackers to take the majority of the reps, the Bills turned Alexander into a versatile chess piece that continued to wreak havoc on opposing offenses all year long. Alexander really hit his stride with both his ability to rush the passer and get in the backfield, along with superb positioning while in pass coverage. Alexander didn't play a vast majority of snaps until the final month of the season when the Bills lost Matt Milano to injury, but he had a knack for maximizing his small amount of snaps on the field with big plays in the backfield or in pass coverage. Alexander defied the usual logic associated with his age and was one of the best players on the entire roster -- let alone in the linebacker room.
WLB Matt Milano
2018 Season GPA: 2.99 (Snap Count: 741)
2019 Contract Status: $710,376 cap hit, signed through 2020
Age: 24 (7/28/1994)
- In what was close to his first full season as the starter, the Bills continued the development of their fifth-round steal of a player in Matt Milano in varying ways. In the summer, the Bills tried to keep Milano motivated by giving Ramon Humber first-team reps in his place. It even continued into the season when they would take Milano off the field for a few series a game. However, this quickly dissipated because of how valuable the young linebacker was almost every time he touched the field. Boasting great range, speed, and instincts, Milano turned into an impact defender that found himself at or near the top of the weekly rankings. You might be wondering, why is his grade so low, then? Well, Milano had a handful of games where the defense used his speed and reactiveness against him, which based on what we've seen from him so far in his career, is something that will dissipate with more time on task. Unfortunately for Milano, his season ended in early December following a gruesome broken leg injury in Week 14. The Bills immediately started him into surgery, with the hope that he'd be back in time for offseason workouts. It will likely take him some time to get back being comfortable on the leg, but once he is, I think he'll return to form with the potential to improve even more.
MLB Tremaine Edmunds
2018 Season GPA: 2.87 (Snap Count: 927)
2019 Contract Status: ~$2.877 million cap hit, signed through 2021
Age: 20 (5/2/1998)
- When the Bills selected the 19-year-old rookie middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, they knew what they were getting into with his first season. Edmunds boasts an incredible blend of size, length, and athleticism, with all the raw tools there to be a big-time starter in the NFL. However, being that young (20 at the time of the season), there is a certain rawness to your game. Edmunds, in the most heavily depended upon position of Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier's defense, noticeably struggled in the preseason for the Bills. He improved slightly once the regular season came along but still played at a slightly below average level (2.61 GPA) through his first seven games with the team. With rookie linebackers like the 23-year-old Darius Leonard in Indianapolis and the 22-year-old Leighton Vander Esch in Dallas flourishing, fans were left wondering if the Bills made the wrong call. That is, if you paid close enough attention, until the final eight games of Edmunds' season. It was a prophecy from general manager Brandon Beane ahead of the season, who said in the second half of 2018, he expected Edmunds to be playing at a much different level -- and the GM was right on in his prognostication. Through the final eight games, Edmunds was one of the top-graded players on the Bills roster with a 3.11 GPA, and in his final four games, he was pushing the top of the list with a 3.22 GPA. For perspective, the top-graded player in 2018 was Jerry Hughes with a 3.25 GPA. His improving play against the run, his sideline-to-sideline speed, and his chops in pass coverage all led Edmunds to be a high-level starter in the second half of his rookie season. He'll only be 21 years old at the start of next season, and if he improves on block shedding, Edmunds could be a high-level starter for years to come. He was a massive improvement over 2017 starter Preston Brown and helped the defense reach new levels in 2018.
Players with less than 200 snaps
MLB Julian Stanford
2018 Season GPA: 2.17 (Snap Count: 89)
2019 Contract Status: $1.525 million cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 28 (9/2/1990)
- Signed to be a core special teams player, Stanford had to pitch in with one spot start near the middle of the season for the injured Edmunds. Stanford held his own for one game, though if it were a prolonged absence for Edmunds you'd have to wonder how much the defense would suffer. Signed through 2019, I believe his special teams ability was good enough to keep around next year.
WLB Corey Thompson
2018 Season GPA: 2.07 (Snap Count: 80)
2019 Contract Status: $570,000 cap hit, signed through 2020
Age: 25 (12/23/1993)
- The Bills added Thompson to the active roster after he spent the first 11 weeks of the season on the practice squad. The move was made to try and boost the struggling special teams units and to get the young Thompson some more experience. Just a few weeks later, Thompson was in the starting lineup for the injured Matt Milano and flashed enough rookie tendencies in Week 15 against Detroit, that New England elected to go a run-heavy offense to keep Thompson on the field for 48 out of 75 snaps in Week 16. It had to be a learning experience for the undrafted rookie, and he'll likely be in a battle for a roster spot in training camp and the preseason.
SLB Deon Lacey
2018 Season GPA: 2.62 (Snap Count: 14)
2019 Contract Status: Restricted free agent
Age: 28 (7/18/1990)
- The Bills kept Deon Lacey around for another season for special teams only responsibilities. Now heading into his age-29 season as a restricted free agent, it wouldn't cost the Bills much to give him an RFA tender of the lowest value. His roster security in 2019 is not guaranteed.
**Ramon Humber took 61 snaps for the Bills before being released in Week Ten.
Recommendations for 2019
1) Re-sign Lorenzo Alexander
- This one is pretty easy to spot. Alexander was one of the best starters on the team in 2018, he wants to be back with the Bills in 2019, and with the loss of Kyle Williams in the locker room the soon-to-be 36-year-old Alexander's voice will be one of the most influential in the locker room. Not to mention, his presence in a linebacker room with two high potential young players in Edmunds and Milano makes his re-signing almost mandatory. Without him, the Bills would have a gaping hole in their starting lineup. The Bills have a ton of cap space, and this would be nothing more than a short-term arrangement. As far as offseason moves go, this is the most logical move of the Bills -- that's within their control -- of the 2019 offseason.
2) Draft a developmental strongside linebacker on Day Three
- Even though the Bills should re-sign Lorenzo Alexander for the 2019 season, that leaves them without a long-term plan at strongside linebacker once the season is over. This upcoming April, the Bills will have seven selections in the final four rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft, and I believe it would be prudent of them to use one of those seven picks on a raw, developmental strongside linebacker that has high athleticism and upside. By doing so, the Bills would have a young player to mold in the background in a low-pressure environment, and ideally, he'd be able to pitch in on special teams in his rookie season. He'd also get a year of learning the position from Alexander, so that way when 2020 comes along, there could be potential for that player to step into the starting lineup if all goes well. Now, since it's a Day Three pick, there aren't any guarantees that it will go well enough for the player to even be on the roster by the time 2021 rolls around, but the Bills have a young contingency plan at almost every position outside of strongside linebacker. In my opinion, that needs to change.
3) Sign a veteran weakside linebacker
- The Bills don't necessarily have to make a flashy signing at weakside linebacker during free agency, but they do need to bring in someone with some experience to work behind starter Matt Milano and be able to play special teams. Based on how things went in the final three weeks of the season, I think the Bills would want to have some competition for Corey Thompson at weakside linebacker at the very least. You also have to consider Milano's broken leg, and if there are any complications from the rehab that keeps him out longer than they'd like him to be, the Bills need to have someone that can step into the lineup. And while it's fair to expect a drop-off from Milano to whoever the veteran player is, the Bills have to make sure it isn't such a steep drop that costs them a victory for however long that player needs to play.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com
Previous 2018 All-22 in Review Breakdowns: