Buffalo Bills' 2009 Training Camp Battle: Strong Side Linebacker

Thomas CasaleCorrespondent IJuly 22, 2009

ORCHARD PARK - AUGUST 28:  Keith Ellison #56 of the Buffalo Bills gets ready on the field during the game against the Detroit Lions at Ralph Wilson Stadium on August 28, 2008 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

As the Bills kick off their training camp July 25, there will be a few position battles to keep a close eye on.

Perhaps the most heated competition will take place at strong side linebacker where incumbent Keith Ellison, second-year man Alvin Bowen and rookie Nic Harris will battle for the starting job.

Ellison has the most experience and the inside track but either Bowen or Harris has a chance to unseat him with a strong camp and preseason.

Here is a closer look at the three leading candidates for Buffalo’s starting strong side linebacker job this season:

Keith Ellison: Ellison found himself as the strong side starter last year when Angelo Crowell went on injured reserve just before the start of the season and the Bills needed someone to step up. Ellison proved to be the guy.

Ellison is your classic overachiever. The former sixth-round draft pick out of Oregon State moved over from his weak side linebacker spot and started 14 games in place of Crowell for Buffalo in 2008.

Like many of the Bills’ defensive players from a year ago, Ellison was steady but not spectacular. He recorded 73 tackles but there were no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles.

The Bills’ defense had a terrible time getting off the field and creating turnovers in 2008 and Ellison certainly didn’t help in that department. Again, steady but unspectacular.

The Bills want to win now and it’s no secret that head coach Dick Jauron’s job is on the line this season. This is another advantage in Ellison’s corner.

Even though Bowen and Harris both could have more upside than Ellison, the veteran will probably be viewed as the safer bet to start the season. Jauron may not want to deal with the growing pains of a younger player in such a pivotal season.

Jauron has always put a premium on players who have familiarity with his system, so going by history it would appear the strong side linebacker job is Ellison’s to lose heading into training camp.

Alvin Bowen:
When I worked for Patriots.com we would get scouting videos of the draft prospects coming out so we could evaluate them ourselves. It was kind of our opportunity to be amateur scouts.

Bowen was a guy that really jumped out at me as a possible sleeper when we watched him on tape. He played on a bad Iowa State team but Bowen made plays all over the field.

I was excited when Buffalo drafted him because I thought Bowen’s size and style of play was a good fit for the Bills’ defensive scheme.

To me, Bowen is the wild card in this battle. Ellison is the favorite but he is kind of ripe for the picking. Harris has the biggest upside but is making the transition from safety and most likely won’t be ready to start in 2009.

That leaves Bowen as the guy who could come up and take control of the starting job with an impressive camp.

Two things that really stuck out at me when watching Bowen play in college were his tenacity and quickness to the ball. Not only did Bowen get to the ball carrier quickly but he made him pay once he got there.

Bowen is a big-time hitter. A player like that can help create more turnovers, an area the Bills need to improve in dramatically from a season ago.

Of course, Bowen is coming off knee surgery from an ACL injury that cost him his entire rookie season, so we don’t know how much of that speed, if any, he lost.

I’m not on the Bills’ medical or coaching staff, so I don’t know for sure how Bowen’s knee is holding up but reports are he is doing great.

If that’s the case, Bowen possesses all the other qualities Jauron, Perry Fewell, and the rest of Buffalo’s defensive coaches look for in an outside linebacker.

As long as Bowen is 100 percent healthy, expect him to make a strong push for the starting strong side linebacker job in training camp.

Nic Harris: I am what you call a college football junkie. One player that I have been intrigued by and have followed a lot over the last couple of years is Harris, so I know a great deal about him and what he brings to the table.

I can tell you that I thought he was playing out of position at Oklahoma and when I saw that the Bills drafted him, the first thing I thought was “strong side linebacker.”

Anyone who follows the college game closely knows the Big 12 is all about passing offenses and Harris was one of the worst coverage safeties in the country.

The quick receivers on teams like Texas, Texas Tech, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma State abused Harris. To put it bluntly, Harris is terrible when it comes to trying to cover and tackle receivers in space.

However, when Bob Stoops would move Harris close to the line of scrimmage in the “rover back” role against running teams, Harris became arguably the best defensive player on the field.

It was an amazing transformation. The bottom line is Harris just wasn’t cut out to be a safety and was playing out of position in college most of the time.

I don’t think Harris will begin the year as Buffalo’s starting strong side linebacker because he is learning a completely new position and it’s just too much to ask from a rookie.

Talking just in terms of athletic ability and upside, Harris has the most to offer out of the three players in this group.

Like I said, I have watched this kid play a lot and if he can master the mental part of the NFL game, I truly believe Harris may be the future for the Bills at strong side linebacker, with the future being next season if everything goes according to plan.

However, for 2009 Harris will most likely learn the position as a backup and use his speed to become a key contributor on special teams.

Overview: Jauron and his staff have a tendency to go the safe route. It’s a strategy I don’t personally agree with but then again, I’m not the head coach. However, a coach like Jeff Fisher is more likely to go with a younger player with upside and live through his mistakes than a more conservative coach like Jauron.

Because of Jauron’s history of being cautious in his decision making, it’s hard to imagine he won’t go with Ellison as his starting strong side linebacker.

While this decision won’t doom the Bills, I would like to see Jauron go with Bowen if it’s close because I believe he has a higher ceiling than Ellison.

I re-watched most of the Bills’ games from last season this summer and there were a few players I really spotlighted, including Ellison. He is the epitome of average.

Teams love to run right at him and more often than not he gets caught up with blockers or runs himself out of a play.

Ellison is a hard worker and he gives his all on every single play. He doesn’t complain and he does everything asked of him. There is something to be said for that.

On the field though, Ellison is restricted physically and the truth is other teams know it and take advantage of his limitations.

Again, I don’t believe Harris is going to be ready until 2010 at the earliest and I’m not suggesting Buffalo start someone other than Ellison just to do so. If Ellison wins the job than by all means, he deserves to be on the field opening night against the Patriots.

But by the same token if Bowen outperforms Ellison and shows a lot of promise, the Bills’ coaching staff shouldn’t feel obligated to go with the veteran just because he’s the “safe” choice.

Safe isn’t going to unseat the Patriots and Dolphins in the AFC East. Safe isn’t going to get the Bills into the postseason for the first time since 1999. Safe isn’t going to keep Jauron in Buffalo beyond 2009.

While this should be a heated competition over the next month, expect Jauron to stick to his guns and go with the veteran Ellison at strong side linebacker.

Either way, look for the talented youngsters Bowen and Harris to make it a difficult choice for Jauron right up until the very end.


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