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22 - Who will be the strong side LB?

Every summer leading up to training camp asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th

The planned transition to the 3-4 defense for the 2010 season forced the Buffalo Bills to re-evaluate their personnel at a number of positions on the field. Switching from the 4-3 scheme, with a reliance on the defensive line, to the 3-4, where the linebackers are more of a focal point, has led to a position change for many players up front. Names like Marcus Stroud, Spencer Johnson, and John McCargo, former tackles, will now line up at the end, while Chris Kelsay, Chris Ellis, and Aaron Maybin have made the move to linebacker. Following offseason minicamps and OTAs, the top three candidates vying for the strong side linebacker position appear to have been narrowed down to Kelsay, Ellis, and rookie Danny Batten.

Kelsay saw the majority of the first team repetitions this spring, marking his return to linebacker for the first time since high school. Since being selected 48th overall in the 2003 NFL Draft, he has found success as a pass rushing defensive end for the Bills, and recorded 62 tackles and five sacks last season.

For a player who found a niche at a certain position for as long as he has, Kelsay was positive about changing positions midway through his professional career.

"I always come into the year optimistic about whatever our situation is. This year, there are a lot of changes, new defense, new position for me, but I'm excited about it," he said during OTAs. "It'll be a lot of studying. I was basically in the same defense for the last seven years, so that side is different for me. But I'm working hard, I'm determined and we're going to continue to push forward."

After succeeding as a smash mouth end rushing the backfield, Kelsay has been working extra hard to improve a new facet of his game, pass coverage, as he could very well be responsible for the opposing team's starting tight end on the strong side.

About half way through the OTA workout schedule, Kelsay was much quicker off the ball in coverage, and held his own downfield. Though he has not seen playing time at the position in years, Kelsay was satisfied with his comfort zone out in space.

"It's something that I just have to continue to work on and make improvements in," he said. "I feel a lot better than I probably thought I would at this point. It's coming pretty quickly, but there's a long way to go."    

Another intriguing option is Ellis, a third-year player who was selected in the 2008 NFL Draft out of Virginia Tech. Through his first two seasons, Ellis recorded a total of eight tackles, missing a large amount of time due to injury and personal reasons.

Ellis' athleticism and natural football ability make him a viable option for defensive coordinator George Edwards, and he made sure to get an early start as he participated in the team's rookie minicamp in addition to the OTAs and minicamps that followed.  

"It was an opportunity to get more reps and see more of the formations and learn a new position that we've got coming this year," Ellis said. "It was a way to get a jump and a head start on the season because we're going to need as many reps as we can get."

Once the offseason practices were in full swing, Ellis spent his time at both weak and strong side linebacker, but seemed to be more of a fit on the strong side. As another player making a change in the middle of his NFL tenure, Ellis seemed to adapt well to his new assignments, and showed improvement from start to finish of offseason work.

Unlike Kelsay, who at one time saw experience as a linebacker, Ellis is learning his role essentially on the fly, and has welcomed the change.

"I did a lot at outside linebacker in the combine and then we had a few sets at Tech, but it wasn't the same as far as making all the calls and checks and communicating with the safeties," he said. "I'm a little familiar to it, but it's pretty much brand new, but change isn't always bad."

The wildcard in the scenario is Batten, the team's sixth-round selection (192nd overall) in this year's draft out of South Dakota State. Batten, who coincidentally played defensive end like his fellow strong side principals, recorded 274 tackles and 23 sacks collegiately for the Jackrabbits.

Being a rookie, all while learning a new position, is a difficult undertaking for any player, but Batten was hard at work during OTAs to make his transition a success.

"There are things that I'm learning every single day, things that we're installing every single day," he said. "I'm picking it up decently well and studying all day and all night. I'm learning the plays and I'm getting it down."

An advantage Batten does hold in the competition is his speed, as he is arguably the fastest of the three players, yet his inexperience on Sunday may limit his game day opportunities with the starting unit for the time being. Batten did see a significant amount of reps with the second team, which he said allowed him to study his technique and try to improve his performance when his number is called.

"Being able to critique yourself on film is the best teacher because you can actually see what you're doing wrong," Batten said. "You can study all day but until you go out and do it and learn from your mistakes you never fully learn. So I'm blessed to get the reps I've been getting right now."

Whether it's the pass rusher Kelsay, the all-around defender Ellis, or the speedy youngster Batten, the Bills have the pieces to insert into the strong side linebacker puzzle. It would appear that Kelsay has the upper hand going in based on his vast NFL experience in comparison to the other two candidates. The performance of each player when training camp opens July 29 however, will be the final test to see who will line up on the strong side during NFL Kickoff weekend.    

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