Bills GM Brandon Beane seems quite unconcerned that the loss of veteran LB Lorenzo Alexander to retirement will hinder the linebacking core's ability to help maintain the top-5 defensive ranking that Buffalo earned last season. Buffalo did not use any of their seven 2020 draft picks to select a linebacker, in fact using only two of their seven picks to select defensive players at all, those being DE A.J. Epenesa out of Iowa in the 2nd round (the team's first pick after trading their 1st round pick to Minnesota in a deal for Stefon Diggs), CB Dane Jackson, Buffalo's 7th round selection out of Pitt.
“Obviously we added A.J. Klein who can play inside can play outside,” said Beane during a press conference on April 25, the final day of the 2020 NFL Draft. “We got some young guys. We have Corey Thompson coming back who’s had a little bit of experiences and started a couple games. Vosean [Joseph] was out last year with a shoulder. He’s beefed up some I think it’s going to help him, but we got a lot of young guys that are going to have to come in and compete.”
Klein spent his first four seasons as a pro in Carolina, playing under McDermott who was the defensive coordinator, before signing with New Orleans in 2017, and ultimately signing a three-year, $18 million deal with Buffalo on March 17. Klein will likely start at outside LB for Buffalo, representing a veteran presence on the edge to fill at least some of the void left by Alexander's departure.
Corey Thompson is about as unproven as a player can get, having been signed as an UFA out of LSU in 2018 and appearing in just 12 games last season, seeing fewer than 6% of the defensive snaps. Thompson played on half of Buffalo's special teams plays last season, but Buffalo signed former-Steeler Tyler Matakevich to be a special teams specialist to a two-year deal, so Thompson might not even make the team. And so Beane's uttering of Thompson's name in congress with Klein's is a bit odd since Thompson will have to impress coaches just to make the roster.
Vosean Joseph was a fifth-round pick of the Bills out of Florida in 2019, but a shoulder injury prevented him from seeing the field during his rookie season. Joseph was a good linebacker in the three years at Florida, which means that it is nearly impossible to determine either his floor or his ceiling at this point.
After Klein, Joseph, and Thompson, the Bills linebacking core comes more into focus. Tremaine Edmunds has all thee trappings of a player who Beane and McDermoot ought to keep in red, white and blue throughout his playing days. The Bills took Edmunds with the 16th overall pick in the 2018 draft and he has thus far produced at near All Pro levels. Statistically, Edmunds appears to be a good linebacker, though perhaps not at the level of a Luke Keuchly or Bobby Wagner. But Bills fans across the board will likely attest to Edmunds being the leader of one of the league's best defenses, and with Alexander no longer around, the third-year star out of Virginia Tech will be given the keys to kingdom and full expected to blossom into the defense's quarterback.
Matt Milano will be a starting OLB for Buffalo this season, a role he more than earned with 101 combined tackles in the 2019-20 season. The fifth-rounder out of BC has improved each of his three seasons in Buffalo, and his impressive speed and nose for the ball were put on display with increasing frequency throughout the second half of last season.
A big storyline of this offseason has been Buffalo's hybrid 3-4/4-3 approach. A critical variable in determining whether this hybrid defense will be successful or not will be second-year DT Ed Oliver's evolution. His 2020 is off to a shit start following a DUI arrest in his hometown of Houston. When combined with the fact that the lauded young lineman often looked lost in the scheme last season, and neither fast enough to make up for his lack of size nor clever enough to make up for his lack of explosiveness, Oliver has a lot to prove. Buffalo has made offseason additions on the d-line with the signings of tackles Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson, as well as with DE Mario Addison, but none of those additions ought to provide much security to a fan-base wondering what the defense will look like since Alexander has retied, and both Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips have found new homes in Miami and Arizona, respectively.
Star Lotulelei played for McDermott's excellent Carolina defense. Josh Norman played for McDermott's excellent Carolina defense, A.J. Klein and Mario Addison, too. (Vernon Butler was drafted by Carolina in 2016, but McDermott would become the Bills' HC before the season began.) If this Buffalo defense is to be as stout as it was last year, or if it's primed to take a step forward, it will have to indeed be a hybrid approach: Equal parts 4/3, 3/4, Buffalo and Carolina.