There is still a big lingering question to be answered regarding the future of one starting inside linebacker from the 2010 season, but taking an early look at what Assistant Head/Inside Linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt inherits heading into 2011 campaign there is reason to feel encouraged that there will be improvement.
Taking a look back at the 2010 campaign one quickly realizes that by Week 2, one starting inside linebacker was out of the lineup with a sprained knee and the other had torn a labrum in his shoulder and would be lost for the season just five weeks later. It's amazing the group was able to hold things together. What those setbacks did however, was show how much the inside linebacker position needed depth, which was addressed in this past spring's NFL draft.
"We drafted a couple of young kids so hopefully we can create some good competition there and be better," said Wannstedt.
Buffalo's inside linebackers coach is referring to third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard and sixth-round pick Chris White. The pair is forecast to line up at inside linebacker once they step on the field for the Bills in the practice setting.
Wannstedt did not get the opportunity to work with Sheppard and White, who were both part of Chan Gailey's South Team roster at the Senior Bowl, but defensive coordinator George Edwards did and liked what he got from them that week.
"We really liked a lot of the intangibles that both of them bring to the position," Edwards said. "Anytime you talk about guys that bring their lunch pail to work. They're hard workers. They're going to be good guys in the locker room. They're going to do whatever it takes to help us win whether it's special teams or whatever jobs we have for them."
Edwards' description of the two rookies sounds a lot like that of the two veterans that helped man the inside linebacker spots last season in Andra Davis and Reggie Torbor. Davis' season was cut short as he gutted out four weeks with his bum shoulder before going on injured reserve. Torbor meanwhile, filled several roles, playing both inside and outside as needed through the course of the season. His season also ended prematurely due to a torn labrum in his shoulder as well.
"Obviously you don't play as long as both those guys have in this league without having the ability and the intangible qualities necessary," said Wannstedt. "They're both coming off of surgeries from last year so I think when you combine their health status, their current physical state… I know we'll get their best effort. They're high character guys. They know what it takes to win."
Buffalo's defensive coordinator would not pin Torbor down to a specific role for 2011. Edwards seems satisfied to leave the veteran linebacker's job description open knowing wherever there might be a hole Torbor can capably fill it.
"Anytime you have a guy that has that flexibility it helps you when you're setting a roster on Sunday you're only dressing 47 guys," Edwards said. "Having someone that can play both inside and outside helps your versatility in case there's an injury. If you have a different package, you can plug him in there whether it's rushing the passer or covering a back, or whatever it is. Anytime you're in that situation the versatility of a linebacker really helps you."
Culling all the talent together at the position will fall to Wannstedt, who still must get a grasp of what makes each player tick despite getting quality input from his defensive assistants that were here last season.
"We've talked at length about all the players on defense as a staff and where they're at and what our opinions are with respect to potential. That's all been done," said Wannstedt. "The other side is just getting to know these young men and their personalities and knowing a bit about their personal life.
"Everybody is motivated by different things. Everybody has different buttons that need to be pushed and I think with the linebackers, the defense, all the players on the team, I know of them. It's more of a challenge when you haven't been around them, but I think with my experience I can bring a lot of positive things to the team."
Wannstedt is also hoping the now healthy blend of youngsters and vets at inside backer will only enhance the chances for success moving forward.
"Competition makes us all better and healthy competition is what we're trying to create here," he said. "I believe that because of the draft and the guys we have coming back we've got a nice mix."