'We believe in these guys': Bills to hold open competition to replace Tremaine Edmunds

Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, a captain in Buffalo the past four years, signed with the Bears this offseason. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills have largely enjoyed consistency at key spots on defense under coach Sean McDermott. As the team prepares for next season, however, there has been a bit of a shake-up.

First, McDermott took over the playcalling after defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was with the team since 2017, decided to take a year off from coaching. Then the Bills lost a veteran leader on the field in linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Chicago Bears. The 2018 first-round pick was a captain in each of his last four seasons for a defense that led the league in points per game allowed since 2019 (18.6). Edmunds also recorded 100-plus tackles every season and communicated the playcall to the rest of the defense.

The Bills didn't make a splashy move in free agency or the draft to replace Edmunds, leaving a big question mark for who will play alongside Matt Milano.

McDermott encouraged offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey to devise ways during OTAs on Monday to challenge the middle linebackers and rest of the defense.

“I think that's good to see how certain players respond to those challenges and those opportunities really,” McDermott said.

Whoever wins the role will have the benefit of a talented defense with experience around him.

“I know everyone is concerned about [who is starting at middle linebacker], but we have good guys who are working hard. We've got a veteran defense around them,” general manager Brandon Beane said after the draft. “Yeah, there are going to be mistakes. Yes, if you expect them to be Tremaine Edmunds Week 1, you're not going to get that. ... These guys are not going to be perfect, and if we expect that from them, we're setting them up to fail.

"We believe in these guys, and we're going to give them a chance.”

There are five candidates competing for the job: Terrel Bernard, Dorian Williams, Tyrel Dodson, A.J. Klein and Baylon Spector. While none can match Edmunds' size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), the team hopes to find who can play the passing game well when that size advantage is lost.

“Long and short of it is it's also a matchup league. So, you can take a bigger guy who is stout against the run, but you get them in the passing game, and you get a slot receiver on him or anything like that and it could be a mismatch from that standpoint,” Beane said.

The Bills addressed the position twice in last year's draft, selecting Bernard in the third round and Spector in the seventh. Bernard started in place of Milano at outside linebacker for one game last season, while Dodson started at middle linebacker for Edmunds when he was injured for three games. Spector largely had opportunities on special teams.

The team waited until the third round in this year's draft to add a linebacker in Williams. While Beane initially said after the draft they would play Williams at outside linebacker, he later added they weren’t ruling out middle linebacker and would know by training camp if they were giving him an opportunity in the middle. McDermott revealed an initial plan on Tuesday.

“Right now, he's playing the middle linebacker position, he's learning that. We'll see where that goes,” McDermott said. “He played a little bit of both in college. You saw him play middle, you saw him play a little bit of outside. So, we'll see where that goes. His biggest, our biggest ask of him is to come in and learn the defense, and certainly he'll contribute on special teams as well we hope.”

Beane said after the draft that Dodson was the early leader to replace Edmunds due to his game experience, but that they would all get a chance to compete. Bernard, who gained middle linebacker experience at Baylor, has been working on getting stronger and a bit heavier, in addition to learning the mental details of the defense.

Bernard said that while he's still working on outside and middle linebacker, “obviously right now learning the Mike is important just to take control of the defense and be able to run things while I'm out there.”

On replacing Edmunds' leadership, Bernard noted it could come from one or multiple players but that he's worked on improving that area.

McDermott often references the crucial time of development that comes between a player's rookie year to his second season. Bernard is trying to seize the chance.

“Anytime there's an opportunity in front of you, it's what you're going to do with it, so that's where my mindset's been, where I've been focused on,” Bernard said.

While there is a competition at the No. 2 cornerback spot and at the guard positions, the battle for the middle linebacker role will be a new one for the Bills and a big one to watch.

“I think that's also the fascinating part about the job also is how you solve some of the challenges you have and then players as it relates to roster spots or a starting position in this case, stepping up when given an opportunity and see what they do with it,” McDermott said Tuesday. “... And really one of the joys of being a coach is watching young players step up when there's an opportunity.”