On the Roster: Kelvin Sheppard, Nick Barnett, Kirk Morrison (FA), Chris White, Andra Davis, Scott McKillop
What we Know: Kelvin Sheppard has already been designated as the starter in the middle heading into the 2012 season. He had a solid rookie season, finishing fourth on the team with 70 tackles, but didn’t make many big plays. Barnett had a great year, leading the team with 130 tackles while finishing with three sacks, three picks, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown against Tom Brady. He’s a great leader in the locker room and has had success playing in a 4-3 in Green Bay. If he doesn’t beat out Sheppard on the inside it’s almost certain that he will stick as the starter at one outside linebacker spot. He’s a solid tackler, can get after the quarterback and is great in coverage.
Morrison is an interesting story. He joined the Bills the week before the season started and only saw minimal time on the field with the exception of special teams. During his days with the Raiders he was constantly at the top of the league in tackles and has some playmaking ability (6 sacks, 7 INTs, 6 FFs in his career). Against the Redskins he saw a few snaps with the defense and sacked John Beck on his first snap of the game. Don’t be surprised if he’s brought back to provide depth and challenge for one of the starting OLB spots.
At 33 years old, Davis’ career as a starter appears to be over. He is a nightmare in coverage, is one of the slowest defensive players on the team and lost his starting job to Sheppard three games into the season. He likely won’t be back in 2012. White missed most of the season with an injury and McKillop, a once promising prospect in San Francisco, missed the entire 2010 season with a serious ACL injury and was cut by 9ers after camp this year. He likely won’t make a push for much playing time on defense but could be valuable on special teams.
Prognosis: The Bills are pretty loaded at middle linebacker and Sheppard will have plenty of competition to earn a starting job in 2012. He has plenty of talent and should thrive in the 4-3 but there may be some growing pains trying to get adjusted to a new system. Barnett is a lock to start at one of the outside linebacker positions if he doesn’t beat out Sheppard in camp. He hasn’t played outside before but with his athleticism and high motor the switch shouldn’t be too big of an issue. With Davis likely gone and Morrison a bit of a mystery, the depth behind Sheppard will likely be White and McKillop with Barnett moving over in the event of an injury. If Morrison is brought back he likely won’t challenge Sheppard in the middle but could push for a job at one of the outside linebacker spots.
Offseason Solution: Bring back Morrison.
With Sheppard and Barnett already on the roster it wouldn’t make much sense to bring in another starting caliber inside backer. However, you can never have too much depth in your linebacking corps and Morrison has the ability to provide depth at every position. He’s had some experience at outside linebacker in Jacksonville and is only 30 years old so he still has some solid years of production left. If you let Morrison go you’re left with two inexperienced players in White and McKillop as Sheppard’s primary backup which could be disastrous in the event of an injury.
On the Roster: Shawne Merriman, Danny Batten, Arthur Moats, Antonio Coleman, Robert Eddins
What we Know: Merriman thrilled the entire fan base with an absolutely dominant performance against the Bears in the first week of the preseason. Unfortunately that’s where it ended. He appeared in five games during the season, accumulating nine tackles and just one sack in the process. He showed glimpses of his former self occasionally and was able to provide some pressure on opposing quarterbacks but for all intents and purposes the Merriman experiment has been a failure. For the umpteenth time in his NFL career he again succumbed to injury and lost the majority of the season. There’s no guarantee that he’ll return to Orchard Park next season but with one year left on his contract and all of the money pretty much guaranteed it would be surprising to see the normally stingy Ralph Wilson let him walk. He’s the favorite on the current roster to start at one of the outside linebacker positions.
Moats took a big step back in his second year after a promising rookie campaign. He showed some serious flashes of pass rushing ability at the end of his first season in the league and looked primed to carry that promise into this season. He was derailed a bit by an injury in training camp and an impromptu switch to inside linebacker (which made absolutely no sense). When he did get a chance to come off the edge he was dominated by more athletic tackles. He turned his game on towards the end of the season and had a sack in each of the final two games of the season. He could push for playing time at one of the outside positions in 2012.
Prognosis: If the Bills stood pat with their current linebacking corps the likely starting combination would be Sheppard in the middle, Barnett on the weak side and Merriman on the strong side. In a perfect world Sheppard would break through in his second season, the transition to the outside would be seamless for Barnett, and Merriman would show a glimpse of the ability that made him the most feared pass rusher in the league a few years ago. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in Western New York. Merriman will likely be given one more opportunity to prove he’s worth anything in the preseason but don’t hold your breath on him exceeding expectation and actually being a contributor next season. Moats should have a chance to compete but keep in mind that in college he played defensive end in a 4-3. It’s a rare occasion when a former defensive end can make the switch to outside linebacker in a 4-3.
Offseason Solution: Make a play for Erin Henderson, Leroy Hill or draft Courtney Upshaw in April.
E.J.’s little brother had a stellar year in Minnesota this year and emerged as one of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. With the exception of Hill, he’s the only legitimate 4-3 starter on the outside in the free agent pool. He’s great against the run and doesn’t turn 26 until July so he has plenty of time to develop into a top-flight defender. Henderson is the ideal free agent that the Bills normally target. He’s somewhat unknown, is very young, and they wouldn’t have to break the bank to sign him. He has however made it known that he wants to return to the Vikings this year and he may be willing to give them a hometown discount.
If Henderson returns to the Twin Cities the only other option in free agency is Hill. He’s another solid performer with big play potential but struggles mightily staying on the field. He will turn 30 in the first few weeks of the season and his injury history is troubling to say the least but he did make it through the entire 2011 season relatively intact. He’s a playmaker and has played his entire career in a 4-3 and if healthy, would be a major improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
The optimal situation for most Bills fans would be hearing Upshaw’s name called at number ten in April’s draft. He’s a surefire star in the making and is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. He had 9.5 sacks in his senior season and 16.5 in two years as a starter. His playmaking and pass rushing ability is unparalleled but the question is whether he’s a 3-4 OLB, a 4-3 DE or 4-3 OLB. At 6’2”, 265 he fits the profile of that “tweener” position but he’s on the small size for an end and a bit big for a 4-3 outside backer. Either way Upshaw is a playmaker. He could put his hand on the ground as a rush end on passing downs and stand up on the outside on running downs. He has Von Miller-like talent though so don’t be surprised if his value starts to skyrocket as the weeks progress closer to April.