Bills general manager Buddy Nix made it as clear as it could be saying the inside linebacker position needs to be addressed this offseason. Looking at Buffalo’s current roster for 2011 it’s easy to see why. The only players on the roster for 2011 that were a full time inside linebackers this past season was veteran
“I think it absolutely has to be addressed in one place or other,” said Nix. “We need a couple of inside backers. We need some bigger, stronger guys to help us stop the run.”
Buffalo finished last in the league against the run in 2010, and they’ll need reinforcements. Not just any reinforcements, but players that have instincts and a physical frame that can hold up in a 3-4 scheme for a 16-game slate or possibly longer.
Among the better inside linebacker prospects at this week’s Senior Bowl are Michigan State’s Greg Jones and LSU’s Kelvin Sheppard.
Jones was named a first team All-American for the second straight season in 2010. He led the Spartans in tackles all four seasons of his college career including a Big Ten leading 154 as a junior, which also ranked third in the nation. A shade under six feet, Jones weighs 240 pounds and is projected by some draft experts to be a fit as a weak inside linebacker.
“I can play inside and make calls or I can play next to the guy that calls it, the weak side middle linebacker and play off of him or play outside and edge it up,” he said. “I feel like I can be versatile and flexible and work with the team.”
So far North team head coach Marvin Lewis is pleased with what Jones has put on tape this week.
“Greg has had a good three days,” Lewis said. “He’s playing in the defense he’s used to playing, so he’s stood out.”
Jones doesn’t have a big frame and getting much bigger than 240 pounds is probably not in the cards. His assets are his instincts which lead to his impressive production.
“I feel like I have always had those instincts,” he said. “I didn’t realize it until I got to school. I would tell my coach sometimes, ‘Hey I think this play is going to happen.’ And he would tell me it was my gut instincts taking over and he never wanted me to play like a robot so he allowed me to make plays. I still want to play with some structure, and obviously if I don’t do something if it makes the team look bad. That’s not working together. But when I get the opportunity to make a play because I’ve got a good feeling I use that.”
And coming from a conference still known for grinding out yards on the ground, Jones feels it only helps his case.
"Playing in a conference where most teams run the ball that makes you tough," he said.
For Sheppard his frame is a bit thicker and he weighed in at 250 pounds in Mobile this week. The added weight has not appeared to rob him of his 4.6 speed. LSU’s emotional leader on defense, Sheppard's intangibles are obvious.
He was a first team All-SEC performer as a senior finishing third in the conference in tackles with 108, while adding 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and an interception.
Projecting as an inside linebacker, Sheppard has been calling the defensive signals this week for Chan Gailey’s South team and he’s loving every minute of it.
“It’s tremendous. They’re active NFL head coaches. They work with NFL caliber players every day and they know what to expect out of you to be able to compete on the next level. I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Sheppard said. “They’re out there if you do something wrong, they’re on you, but they’re not just jumping down your throat. We’ve got a lot of information and the guys are taking it in well.”
Gailey believes Sheppard has all the qualities to be a good inside linebacker early in his career.
“Shep is a pretty good force inside inside in there,” he said. “He has really taken charge of the defense. He’s making all the calls for us on the defensive side. He’s doing a really good job of finding the football. He can come take on the run and he’s fast enough and aware enough to go cover up some pass situations. I think his instincts may be as good as anybody’s on the football field. He has great instincts. He’s a big, strong guy. I’ve been very impressed.”
Both Jones and Sheppard have been forecast by draft services to come off the board anywhere from round two to round four. That range figures to be narrowed by the time the NFL Combine comes to a close at the end of February.
With respect to fitting a 3-4 defensive system like the one played by the Bills neither Jones nor Sheppard believe it would pose a major challenge.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” said Jones. “I feel like if they’re going to put me in there for a 3-4 I’m there for a reason. If I get in there I want to make it happen.”