Best of AFC East: Do the Bills lead the way at linebacker?

Justin DiLoro
·6 min read

Linebackers have taken on a much greater role over the past decade with the multitude of sets and hybrid schemes that defensive coordinators expect of this group. They have to stuff the run, get after the quarterback, and drop into coverage.

The Bills are a perfect example of this. Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme calls for mainly two linebackers. Others in the AFC East could have groupings of three or four.

Nevertheless, this analysis will explore the divisional units as a whole. Here’s Bills Wire’s rankings of the linebacker groups across the AFC East:

Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

1. Buffalo Bills

There’s a growing theme of the Bills having the best defensive roster in the division. Tremaine Edmunds is growing into a larger force, and it’s only in time that the NFL will give him more praise. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl last year, and more accolades are bound to fall on his shoulders. Edmunds recorded 115 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception, safety, and nine passes defensed in 2019. He’s following the Luke Kuechly path of linebacker development in McDermott’s defense.

Matt Milano has been the biggest steal in the 2017 draft. He is strong in coverage and it’s rare to find mistakes on his part. He had a career-high 101 total tackles last year. His ability to do everything well at his position will force the Bills’ hand to get a contract extension moving sooner than later. Like others on Buffalo’s defense, he’s been overlooked for national recognition which will hopefully soon follow.

But the Bills did have one void to fill this offseason behind Edmunds and Milano. While Lorenzo Alexander did not play every defense snap week in and week out like Edmunds and Milano, he did play many different roles that the Bills will use a committee to replace.

Buffalo brought in AJ Klein to fill the void left behind the retirement of Alexander. The Bills could also feature Vosean Joseph and even Corey Thompson in replacing Alexander’s skill set.

Kyle Van Noy #53 of the New England Patriots. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

2. Miami Dolphins

At linebacker, the Dolphins are a bit of a mixed bag, but some injection of life was placed into this area of their roster, much like their defensive line. Most notably, the Dolphins convinced former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy to jump ship in the division. Miami head coach Brian Flores spent time with New England, so the connections were there.

The Dolphins will hope Van Noy’s skills and knowledge ripples through this group, much like the hope is for Stefon Diggs in Buffalo. Raekwon McMillan, who recorded 72 tackles in 13 games last year, returns in the middle, as does Jerome Baker, who registered 126 total tackles. But the Dolphins will expect better run defense from them.

Elandon Roberts and Vince Biegel will also compete for snaps across from Von Noy in the Dolphins’ 3-4 scheme. Biegel earned starting duty last year, and he looks to have the inside track at starting at outside linebacker once again. Roberts is another Patriots’ transplant, and he will help to support the defense against the run.

An interesting prospect who fell, in the draft, the Dolphins also have Curtis Weaver in the mix. Once considered as high as a second-round pick, the Dolphins grabbed him in the fifth round of the recent draft.

Jets inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

3. New York Jets

Here’s where we start to see a little drop off.

The Jets unit took a huge hit, as CJ Mosely has opted out of the 2020 season. Mosely, one of the Jets’ major signings from the 2019 season, suffered a groin injury in Week 1 last year. He was held to two games in his first season with Gang Green and now in 2020, he won’t play any at all.

Avery Williamson was another major signing from last year, but he spent the entire year on injured reserve with an ACL injury after he was injury while playing late in a preseason game for the Jets a year ago. His return will be of the utmost importance, especially with Mosely not playing this year. At one point he was considered a potential cut candidate for the Jets, but now he’s their long veteran option, potentially.

Jordan Jenkins has quietly been one of the more productive Jets on the roster with extra playing time without the prior mentioned duo. Jenkins registered eight sacks last year and 15 over the past two years.

Several players will vie for snaps this season. Some of them had mixed results in doing so last year for the Jets, so New York is really just hoping for the best in some of these roles. Tarell Basham, Neville Hewitt, Harvey Langi, Patrick Onwuasor, and Blake Cashman are options to fill out the linebacking crops.

Patriots outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

4. New England Patriots

Similar to the Jets, the Patriots took a big loss in their linebacking core due to an opt out via Dont’a Hightower. Also like the Jets, there’s a lack of talented depth behind him to deal with such a loss, especially after Voy Noy skipped town. Hightower had 60 total tackles and four sacks last year.

Edge rushers Josh Simon and Chase Winovich will be relied up to get into the opponents’ backfield without Van Noy’s services. Winovich registered 5.5 sacks during his rookie season in 2019, while Simon added four. The challenge for this unit will be filling the interior of the line. Ja’Whaun Bentley and sixth-round pick Cassh Maluia will fill the gap left behind by Hightower, which again, is a very big ask.

Rookie Josh Uche, Derek Rivers, Brandon Copeland, Shilique Calhoun, and rookie Anfernee Jennings will provide depth with the possibility of starting this season. The Pats are going to depend on youth and inexperience in this area. It will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick gets production out of this unit. The players will need to follow the system closely, as individually they will be outmatched.

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