17 - Who will start at outside linebacker?

Posted Jul 11, 2017

The starting outside linebacker roles are up for grabs and there don't appear to be any clear cut favorites. Here are the prime candidates who will battle for the roles.

Camp Countdown presented by M&T Bank will examine some of the more pressing issues facing the team on the field as they make their final preparations for the regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We’ll address these subjects one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully probe for some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 27th and the Sept. 10th opener at New Era Field against the New York Jets.

The departure of Zach Brown, and the switch to a 4-3 defense under Sean McDermott, has left some holes at linebacker. With a mixture of veterans and rookies, the battle for outside linebacker will be highly contested during training camp. Here are the four players most likely to factor into the battle. 

Last season was a career year for Lorenzo Alexander. The 11-year veteran is the definition of a journeyman. Not only has he played for a myriad of teams, he has also played many positions. Despite that, Alexander showed his natural athleticism last season, totaling 12.5 sacks and garnering a Pro Bowl invitation.

Alexander was one of the starting linebackers during minicamp. The multi-dimensional skill set of Alexander lends the possibility that the Bills will try to use him in many different situations, including special teams. Alexander has shown he can effectively stop the run, totaling 76 tackles last season, and rush the passer. This means he could certainly be an effective outside linebacker.

However, because of his positional flexibility, it appears the hope is some other candidate could earn the starting outside linebacker job, allowing defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to deploy Alexander in a multitude of different ways.

Knowing Alexander will be a full-time participant on special teams, the thought of the 34-year old Alexander logging upwards of 75 snaps a game if he were also a starter on defense seems like a lot to ask.

Alexander could very well be a starting outside linebacker at the outset of the season, but one has to believe the defensive staff would prefer someone prove they can handle that role so that the veteran’s diverse abilities can be maximized in a variety of roles. 

Possibly the most likely to claim one of the outside linebacker spots is Gerald Hodges. The five-year veteran was signed by the Bills this offseason. After spending three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Hodges truly displayed his talents during his time with San Francisco 49ers in 2016.

The athletic linebacker totaled a career-high 12 starts last season, and had 88 tackles, along with three sacks. Hodges sets himself apart from the rest of the linebackers through his coverage ability and had a career-high two interceptions last season.

Like many of the Bills’ signings this offseason, Hodges is versatile.

“I feel like I have a good [level of] experience in all types of defenses,” said Hodges. “I’ve played in different defenses [with] different [defensive] coordinators and things like that.”

Hodges lined up mainly on the strong side in the spring practices. 

Ramon Humber, a nine-year veteran, has spent most of his NFL career with the New Orleans Saints. Humber was signed by the Bills last year to serve primarily on special teams.

Despite seeing starting time in minicamp, Humber could find it tough to lock down one of the starting outside linebacker spots. Humber’s size could make him a target of opposing rushing attacks in base sets. His coverage ability in the spring however, was better than expected as his straight line speed is more than adequate. In McDermott’s defense, linebackers are often asked to drop into coverage. That could land him a role as a nickel linebacker, but full-time starter might be a bigger hill to climb. 

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier complimented Humber’s play during minicamp. The veteran showed his steady play, which garnered him a starting position. He also stated that Humber fits well in a 4-3 system, as he has experience in that type of defense. 

Matt Milano was selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft. The linebacker was taken largely because of his versatility.

During his first two years at Boston College, Milano played exclusively as a reserve safety. However, during his last two seasons, he converted to linebacker. During his senior year, he showed his ability to drop into coverage, as well as being a rangy linebacker, who can make tackles everywhere on the field.

Much like Humber, Milano could see action during specific situations. Milano is only 223 pounds, which raises the concern that his strength could be overmatched in the run front. For this reason, he may be limited to action in obvious passing situations. With his experience as a safety in college, he could be used as a coverage-oriented linebacker in subpackages. 

If Preston Brown wins the starting position at middle linebacker, Reggie Ragland will be a major additional factor into the outside linebacker battle.

Frazier certainly hinted that all sorts of combinations could be seen this season.

“You’ve got three linebackers on the field and we hope that we’ll try to mesh the right three in our 4-3 scheme,” said Frazier. “Maybe that’ll be Lorenzo [Alexander] and Preston [Brown] together or maybe it’ll be a different configuration. You always want to get your 11 best on the field and I believe that those guys will be part of our best 11.”

There is also a possibility that sixth-round pick, Tanner Vallejo, could factor into the battle for outside linebacker. His athleticism could give him an edge, if he can prove that he can cover at the NFL level. However, being a late-round pick, his opportunity to start right away seems slim.