Through training camp last year, many Bills fans were excited about the defense. The defensive tackle position was solidified with Kyle Williams and Marcus Stroud, the secondary was looking strong with Jabari Greer and Terrance McGee, and the linebacking corp was solidified.
Or so they thought.
In a controversial move, the Bills put Angelo Crowell on injured reserve prior to the beginning of the regular season. This put Keith Ellison immediately in the starting role, since rookie Alvin Bowen tore a knee ligament and Keith had started at the other linebacking spot the year before, he seemed like the sure fill in.
In 2007 he did great in pass coverage, but struggled a bit in the run game. The Bills struck gold with the signing of Kawika Mitchell, and it sent Keith back to his reserve and special teams role. When thrown in to the mix again in 2008, he just didn't have "it."
One of the biggest training camp battles for the Buffalo Bills will be at outside linebacker. Paul Posluszny's leadership and signal calling ability solidifies him in the middle, and Kawika Mitchell's playmaking ability keeps him on the field, but the other side has a question mark next to it on paper.
Let's see the candidates...
Keith was drafted in the sixth round to be solid depth and a special teamer. In his two year tenure with the Bills he's started 23 of the 28 games he was eligible for. He's quick, instinctive, and has a nose for the ball when it's in the air. If you want a linebacker on the opposing tight end, you would feel comfortable with Keith guarding him.
The knock on Keith is his size and the problem he may be overly instinctive at times, especially in the run game. In third and long situations, he's optimal at linebacker. With little experience behind him, he seems to be the No. 1 option as of now.
The darkhorse in the race, Alvin tore his ACL in early August last year. He never had a rookie season, but coming out of the draft, the former Cyclone was a tackling machine. He's got the speed for the position, and could really help in the run game. His rehabilitation has gone well, and he feels he's completely ready for the upcoming season.
Inexperience at the NFL level is certainly a concern, but having had plenty of time to read over the playbook and study the system could be a plus in his favor. He is also a bit undersized, listed at 6'1 222. If he performs well in the offseason, he could easily supplant Keith as the starter.
Rookie Nic Harris is a converted safety from his days of being a Sooner, but has the size and skill to be a productive NFL linebacker. He can immediately produce on special teams, and his run stopping ability enticed the Bills to take him 147th overall. At 6'2" 232, he's physically bigger than Keith and Alvin.
The same can be said, though, about Nic Harris as above stated with Alvin. He doesn't have the experience at the NFL level, let alone the position. He was heralded as being smart and a quick learner at Oklahoma, though, so if he can catch on to the playbook and produce on the practice field, he may be at least a rotational player at the position.
Blake Costanzo, John DiGiorgio, Aaron Maybin
These three are grouped together because they would be huge darkhorses. Aaron Maybin is a pass rushing machine, and has the physical tools to be a good outside linebacker, but he's used to beating tackles out of the three point stance. His size and speed could put him in the position, and although listed as a defensive end, his number at the time being is 58, which is a linebacker number, not a lineman's.
John DiGiorgio, when Paul Posluszny fell to injury in 2007, filled in well and proved that he was the most competent of the backup linebackers on the team. He lacks the elite speed for the position, but with his instincts and run plugging ability, he may be a candidate.
Blake Costanzo did very well on special teams last year, making impressive tackles on kick offs, but saw little of the field on defense. Depending on his performance in training camp, he may at least be a rotational player at the position.
One of the more intriguing positional battles is at wide receiver.
Before the signing of Terrell Owens, it was simply Lee Evans, Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish, James Hardy, Stevie Johnson and Justin Jenkins. When James went on IR, Stevie stepped up in the red zone game and scored two touchdowns. His physical attributes are perfect for the position, but James could possibly bloom in to the second round pick he was worth last year.
James has the size at 6'5, but failed to produce on fade routes in the red zone. Stevie is the less experienced, but at 6'2 202 is the prototypical receiver. With Terrell and Lee catching the majority of passes, it will be interesting to see who gets put in the slot or as the fifth receiver in five receiver sets. It doesn't hurt to have a 14-year veteran as a mentor and teacher in Owens.
It all comes down to who can out perform who, and Bills fans will be enticed throughout the year to see what the final depth chart looks like.