Angelo Crowell - 126 tackles, 86 solo, 2 sacks, 1 int.
John DiGiorgio - 113 tackles, 85 solo, 2 sacks, 1 int.
Keith Ellison - 38 tackles, 26 solo, 1 sack, 1 int.
Paul Posluszny - 25 tackles, 16 solo, 0 sacks, 0 int.
Kawika Mitchell - 76 tackles (54 solo), 3.5 sacks, 1 int.
During the Bills 2007 campaign Trent Edwards wasn't the only young talent to emerge in the wake of injury. Last season John DiGiorgio raised both coach's eyebrows and opposing lineman's heart-rates after a strong year at middle linebacker. The virtual no-name replaced highly touted rookie linebacker Paul Posluszny when the second-round pick suffered a season-ending injury.
The 2007 season began mired in defensive uncertainty after the off-season loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements to San Francisco in free agency. Buffalo was dealt yet another early blow Week Three when Posluszny, the 34th overall pick in the 2007 draft, was forced onto injured reserve with a season-ending forearm injury against New England. Rising from the dust of a decimated young linebacking core was DiGiorgio, a second-year player out of Saginaw Valley State. DiGiorgio finished the season with 113 tackles, second-highest on the team.
DiGiorgio also had two interceptions on the season, one of them coming in the Bills' bizarre, heartbreaking loss to Dallas on Monday Night Football. He wrangled the fifth and final interception by Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo at the Bills one-yard line jumping a post route and returning it 38 yards with just over five minutes to play in regulation. The Bills would lose 25-24 on a gut-wrenching 53-yard field goal by Cowboys kicker Nick Folk as time expired. The Bills offense did not score a touchdown in the game, but was in control throughout thanks to DiGiorgio (9 tackles, one int., two pass breakups) and the defense.
Helping to anchor the Bills linebacking core with DiGiorgio was defensive captain Angelo Crowell. Crowell started all 16 games for Buffalo and led the Bills in tackles, seamlessly picking up where free agent departure London Fletcher left off. Crowell's 126 tackles were the ninth highest total in the NFL. The fifth-year player out of Virginia was the only Bills linebacker with more than two years of experience.
Perhaps Crowell's defining moment of last season came in Week 13 against Washington. In front of an emotional crowd at FedEx Field, Crowell sacked Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell in his own endzone for a safety in the second quarter that would end up being the difference in a 17-16 Bills victory.
Second-year linebacker Keith Ellison out of Oregon State was the final pillar of the Bills linebacking core last season. The undersized Ellison (6-0, 228 lb.) overcame an ankle injury that sidelined him for the first four games of the season and played in the final 12 games of the regular season at outside linebacker and recorded 39 tackles.
Despite their resiliency, the Bills mediocre front four and inexperienced linebacking core displayed their youth throughout the season allowing 124.6 rushing yards per game last season. Even with their inconsistencies against the run, the linebackers were often relied heavily upon the help to hide the loss of Clements in a depleted secondary. However, the Bills did have one of the strongest red zone defenses in the NFL last season. The defense was fourth in the league in red-zone defense by only allowing 44.6 touchdown percentage and also had a plus-9 turnover ratio on the season.
In the 2008 season, the Bills will expect to see a return on the investment they made in drafting Posluszny so high. Fully recovered from his forearm injury, Posluszny will be looked to tap into his infinite potential as a stabilizing force against the run.
Posluszny and DiGiorgio will most likely be battling for the starting middle linebacker position in August. As far as the strong side linebacker, Angelo Crowell will return as the starter. Last season was the most productive of his five-year career and he will look to build upon it both statistically and as a leader on Buffalo's ultra-young defense.
The key addition to the Bills linebacking core is former New York Giants LB, Kawika Mitchell. Mitchell had a very productive season last year for the Giants, recording 76 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Mitchell, however, will be interesting to watch. Is he as good as advertised (and the mega-contract he receiverd) or just the beneficiary of an elite front four in New York? The Giants' aggressive defense orchestrated by Steve Spagnola, a former protégé of Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, caters to the linebackers roaming freely. Still, expect the 2008 Bills linebacker corps to be an upgrade from last season. Should everyone stay healthy and Mitchell display he wasn't the product of a well organized system, Buffalo's run defense should improve drastically.
Jeff Westfall is a frequent contributor to the BFR. Contact him at email@example.com