While there is a good chance this will be a moot point come March (with the looming CBA battle), I feel that the Bills will be vastly improved by the addition of LB help. It’s no secret that success in the 3-4 is predicated by a team’s linebacker play. This has been painfully obvious at times this season, with our inability to play zone consistently, stop the run, and/or rush the passer. Many pundits view the Bills as a team with an overrated secondary. However, you can get burnt having Mel Blount and Deion Sanders on the backend if your front seven cannot generate any pressure or play gap-responsible football.
Our problems start at the rush LB position. Aaron Maybin was a poor choice in 2009. I gave him a 6th round grade, but I did view him as a player with upside if we switched to the 3-4. I admit I was wrong on both counts. At this point in his career, Maybin wouldn’t even warrant that selection and is arguably worse off in a 3-4. He’s too thin to hold up against the run. He’s too upright and struggles to get any leverage when trying to bull rush an offensive tackle. He’s awkward in space and is a liability in coverage. His only “strength” is the speed rush, but he struggles to dip his shoulder low enough to sneak by. That all being said, his arrogance and his belief he’s a stud has got to be rubbing teammates the wrong way. While I believe his benching may knock him down a peg, it won’t help his pass rushing ability.
Chris Kelsay is still a bit of a head scratcher. I felt he played the best football of his life last season. He tallied 5 sacks and 41 tackles, with his ability to stuff the run steadily improving. He’s also been a defensive captain for the past few seasons. With his value at an all-time high and entering the final year of his deal, I figured the Bills would be wise to ship to former 2nd round pick out of Nebraska to a 4-3 team. Instead, the team inserted him into the starting lineup of a defense he hardly fits. Then, in late September, he received a 4-year extension worth $24 million. Kelsay is a likeable leader, but any player will get worn down playing in a system they can’t produce in. While I trust Buddy Nix knows what he’s doing, I have a feeling both parties will end up regretting the extension. Poz is an intelligent player, but he struggles to get off blocks and is an average blitzer. He is also a much better fit for the 4-3.
For the record, our LB corps is not completely filled with 4-3 players. Despite being banged up this year, I’m a big fan of Andra Davis and losing him for the rest of the season is a big loss. Arthur Moats has the look of a 3rd down rush specialist. Akin Ayodele is a solid run stuffer and if Shawne Merriman is even half the player he was in his first three seasons, we have already improved our pass rush. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ to bank next season on, though. For that reason, there are two guys the Bills can target that will immediately improve the unit dramatically: ILB David Harris (NYJ) and OLB LaMarr Woodley (PIT). It will take some serious cash to get these deals done, but I feel confident in saying the defense can statistically be in the NFL’s top 10 as a result. Harris is one of the most underrated players in the league. He can do it all and he’s still 26. With his leadership qualities, Harris can be a core player to build the defense around. Woodley has been a beast at OLB for the Steelers. He’s equally adept at pass rushing and stuffing the run. You can line him up anywhere and he can wreak havoc. Woodley is also 26 and entering his prime. It’ll be difficult to pry him away from the Steelers, but like the Jets, they are already doling out some hefty contracts.
If we are able to improve our LB play, suddenly the secondary returns to its status as one of the league’s best. With our defense improved, we find a way to win these close games we keep dropping. We have the potential for a faster turnaround if we can get these two guys into the fold.