The Buffalo Bills have struggled to find capable linebackers for years. Following the release of Nick Barnett, the need for a coverage linebacker increased to an even larger need. Looking at the defenses that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine presided over in Baltimore and New York, his linebackers are very big and fairly athletic.
Buddy Nix explained the traits he looked for in linebackers to BuffaloBills.com.
“When you’re looking at linebackers, I think it’s changed now. You want a guy who can run and cover and can match up against a slot or a tight end. See if that guy has got enough mobility in space to cover.”
Basically, coverage linebackers like Nix described are weakside linebackers, the position Barnett played in the 4-3 defensive front. While the 2013 draft class has far more talent at the non-pass rusher linebacker position than in free agency, there still are a few players that could attract the Bills’ front office.
Phillip Wheeler, 28, Oakland Raiders
Phillip Wheeler was a rotational linebacker for the first four years of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, but he started all 16 games in 2012 at strongside linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. The 6’2” 240 pound outside linebacker recorded 109 tackles, forced two fumbles, recorded three sacks, and batted away six passes. Wheeler graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage. He was also excellent rushing the passer, grading out behind only Von Miller in that area, as the former Georgia Tech standout generated 30 pressures. His play against the run wasn’t as impressive as against the pass, as he managed just 22 stops in the run game.
Dannell Ellerbe, 27, Baltimore Ravens
Dannell Ellerbe emerged as a big-time player for the Ravens this season, especially when Ray Lewis missed time with injury. Ellerbe was undrafted in 2009 out of Georgia, but played 980 snaps with the Ravens in 2012, recording 89 tackles and 4.5 sacks as the weakside inside linebacker. At 6’1” 240 pounds, Ellerbe is versatile enough to play outside or inside in a 4-3, and is a great fit for the Bills’ new hybrid defense. He’s an absolute stud against the run, as he made 52 stops in 2012, and he graded out as the 3rd ranked inside linebacker while rushing the passer. Ellerbe is a complete, three-down linebacker that is a fit for nearly any defensive scheme.
Erin Henderson, 26, Minnesota Vikings
Erin Henderson is the prototypical weakside linebacker, and has developed into a very good player since going undrafted in 2008. Henderson recorded 79 tackles and three sacks, while forcing two fumbles in 2012. He’s big and fast, and at 6’3” 242 pounds, he has the size that Mike Pettine looks for. Henderson ranked as the No. 6 4-3 outside linebacker in Run Stop Percentage, after making 28 stops in 286 run snaps. He was average in pass coverage, but after the Vikings handed a big contract to linebacker Chad Greenway, the team might not have the funds to pay another player at the position. Henderson projects as an inside linebacker in a 3-4, but fits best as a weakside 4-3 outside linebacker.
Justin Durant, 27, Detroit Lions
Justin Durant is a very underrated linebacker in the National Football League. Despite weighing just 230 pounds, Durant played 875 snaps this year at strongside linebacker for the Detroit Lions. He’s versatile and athletic, which makes him a great fit for 4-3 defenses. In 2012, Durant recorded 103 tackles, and ranked as the No. 4 4-3 outside linebacker in Run Stop Percentage, making 49 stops in 345 run snaps. His small stature sometimes resulted in not being able to bring down ball carriers, as he missed a tackle every 8.4 attempts. If the Bills were going to stick with the 4-3, Durant would be an excellent fit, but there might not be a role for him in a 3-4.
Kaluka Maiava, 26, Cleveland Browns
Kaluka Maiava was part of the incredible USC linebacking corps that featured Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, and Rey Maualuga, but due to his 5’11” 226 pound frame, he wasn’t thought of very highly. Despite his size, Maiava has been able to contribute due to his versatility. He’s able to play both the strong and weakside linebacker positions, and he performs well at both. He’s exceptional in pass coverage, but he overcomes his lack of size by utilizing great technique to defend the run. Maiava played 498 snaps with the Browns in 2012, and recorded 53 tackles and two sacks. Maiava projects as a nice option as an undersized, nickel linebacker.
Rey Maualuga, 26, Cincinnati Bengals
Rey Maualuga is the most popular of the free agent linebackers, but he’s also the most overrated. Maualuga recorded 122 tackles in 2012, but graded out at the bottom of the league in pass coverage, run defense, and rushing the passer. He’s 6’2” and 265 pounds, which is huge for a 4-3 middle linebacker, but he does fit the height/weight/speed of most of the linebackers Pettine has used in Baltimore and New York. Maualuga definitely isn’t what you want in a coverage linebacker, but he’s shown he can play the run in the past. Teams will have to decide whether his 2012 campaign was an anomaly, in addition to deciding which of the linebacker positions fit his size and skill set best, before handing him a long-term contract. Maualuga intrigues me a great deal as a strong-side inside linebacker for the Bills’ new “3-4” defense.
Manny Lawson, 28, Cincinnati Bengals
Manny Lawson is another popular name floating around, but he’s a pretty overrated player when you consider his overall play throughout his seven-year career. Lawson is a former first round draft pick, but is really “just a guy.” However, Lawson would bring experience and special teams ability, and could serve as a mentor to Nigel Bradham at the strongside linebacker position. At this stage in his career, Lawson is rotational player that is a good tackler with above average ability against the run, but is subpar in pass coverage. He adds little in terms of pass rushing ability and displays average speed. In 362 snaps with the Bengals in 2012, he made 39 tackles and two sacks.
Brad Jones, 26, Green Bay Packers
Brad Jones is really an interesting player that could be a great fit for the Bills’ defense. He was a seventh round draft pick in 2009, but has emerged as a starter through his noted hard work and dedication. Jones played 829 snaps in 2012, and recorded 83 tackles and two sacks. Jones is 6’3” and 242 pounds and is an extremely versatile player, which boosts his value. He’s played at both outside linebacker positions in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense, in addition to holding down both the “Mike” and “Will” inside linebacker spots. ProFootballFocus graded Jones as the 8th best inside linebacker in pass coverage and 10th against the run.