When linebacker Tremaine Edmunds signed a contract with the Chicago Bears in free agency, the Buffalo Bills were tasked with filling the void his absence left in the middle of their defense.
Outside of drafting linebacker Dorian Williams in the third round of the NFL draft, they left a lot to be desired in their pursuit of finding Edmunds replacement. So, wouldn't Williams be a shoo-in for the middle linebacker position?
Unfortunately, things aren't that simple.
After the Bills drafted Williams with the 91st overall pick in April, general manager Brandon Beane shared mixed reviews when it came to the linebacker's chances of starting up the middle during the 2023 season.
While Beane was quick to praise the athletic ability of Williams, as well as his prowess as a "tackling machine", he also mentioned that Williams would likely be competing for playing time at the outside linebacker position — a starting spot that is currently held by first-team all-pro linebacker Matt Milano.
“We’ll start him outside, we like to make them somewhat interchangeable. This system is more complex than the one he’s coming from. Mentally from a football foundation, he’s got more ground to cover here. Year 1 we’ll probably keep him outside," said Beane.
The Bills defense is interesting because they typically play a 4-3 nickel scheme that only deploys two linebackers at one time, one of which is always going to be Milano. Their formation and Milano leave room for only one available starting linebacker position this season — and it's at MLB.
In training camp, thus far, the Bills have given undrafted veteran Tyrel Dodson, 32-year old A.J. Klein, and sophomore linebacker Terrel Bernard the chance at winning Edmunds old job. After an injury to Bernard's hamstring, the position looks like it will be handed to one of either Dodson or Klein — regardless of Williams having flashed some promising potential during the Bills first two preseason games.
This play in particular, from the Bills opening preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, showcased Williams incredible athletic ability in pursuit of the Colts ball carrier. Not only was Williams able to use his speed to beat an incoming block from the Colts right guard, but he also used his feet to establish enough leverage to tackle the Colts running back for a loss of yardage on the play.
Considering Williams appears more talented than the team's other options at middle linebacker, what's the hold-up for him starting the season alongside Matt Milano — and not behind him on the depth chart?
The middle linebacker position is unique in the sense that it's the quarterback of a team's defense and Williams is only starting to get accustomed to the Bills complicated defensive scheme. Considering the other linebackers have all played at least one full season with the Bills, it's most likely Williams lack of experience in Buffalo's defense that will hold him back from starting in week one.
In fact, Bills head coach and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is keen on having the middle linebacker be the "leader" of the team's defense.
When you consider McDermott's vision for the middle linebacker role, it's likely going to be A.J. Klein or Tyrel Dodson who trot out with the first-team defense in the Bills season opener against the New York Jets on September, 11th. Both players have been with the team since the 2020 season, aside from Klein's brief stint with the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens last season, and probably have the strongest grasp on the team's defensive structure.
While Williams has shown strong performances at outside linebacker in the team's first two preseason games, he's playing a much simpler role where he is able to lean on his athletic ability to focus on pursuing the football and ultimately make a play on it — in other words, it's see-ball, get-ball.
But that isn't to say Williams won't be given an opportunity to start at middle linebacker down the line.
If Dodson and Klein continue to underperform during the opening stages of the season, and Williams shows progress playing in a depth role, the Bills might consider letting their rookie linebacker take control of the middle of their defense at some point this season — especially if he has another impressive showing in the Bills final preseason match against the Chicago Bears this weekend.
For now, Bills fans should expect Dodson or Klein to assume the starting MLB role in week one against the Jets, but don't sleep on Williams to take over by the middle of the season — and look for Williams to get some valuable reps at MLB in Saturday's preseason action against the Bears.