Reports came out a few days ago stating that unrestricted free agent Matt Milano would in fact be testing free agency and not returning to the Buffalo Bills.
Matt Milano is a former 5th round pick out of Boston College who—in his time with the Bills—has grown into a key player and fan favorite on the defense. He has 5 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries in his 4 seasons with the Bills as well as 273 tackles including 30 TFLs.
Replacing Milano will be a difficult task, but between free agency and the draft, there is a chance the Bills may be able to at least patch the hole.
Currently, the Bills are projected to be a bit over the cap, but by letting a few other free agents walk, such as Trent Murphy and Tyler Kroft, they should be able to open up a few million dollars to test free agency with.
Due to these low funds, it is unlikely that Von Miller or Bud Dupree would come to Buffalo, even less likely when you consider the current Bills-JJ Watt rumors.
However, free agency does still post some names that could make a case for being the Bills’ new OLB. Haason Reddick is one option that comes to mind immediately, as he is coming off his rookie deal and a career year with 12.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. The former first-round pick is likely to be re-signed but on the off chance he is not, he could make a strong replacement for the Bills.
Another interesting name to consider is Tyus Bowser, a former second-round pick who never truly came into his own in Baltimore. A change of scenery may benefit him greatly. Likely to be a budget guy, if he improves in a new system he could be a steal and if he continues on the pace he is on he will be fine in a Bills’ system that sees pass rushers sub out often.
Other interesting options include Alex Anzalone escaping from a cap hell New Orleans, recently cut Christian Kirksey, and veteran Sean Lee.
Naturally, the draft is the most budget-friendly option for the Bills, as well as the most likely outcome. This draft includes Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Zaven Collins, and Jabril Cox among many others, but these three specifically make the most interesting argument to become a Bill. Owusu-Koramoah is the highest-projected player of the three, expected to go in the mid to late first round.
He is coming off an amazing season with Notre Dame. He took home the Dick Butkus award for Best Linebacker accompanying some other famous names like Patrick Willis and Von Miller. In addition, he has amazing speed to fill Milano’s coverage role and is a similar size at 6’1, 215 pounds (Milano is 6’0, 221 pounds). Paired with a scary fast Tremaine Edmunds, he could bring a lot for offenses to be afraid of each week.
Zaven Collins is my personal favorite to fill the role. Collins may be available at the Bills’ 30th overall pick, as he is projected to go late first or early second. He is coming off an amazing season that includes 2 pick-sixes off 4 interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 4 sacks.
Unsurprisingly, this led him to win many awards including but not limited to the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Award, as well as First-Team All-American and first-team All-AAC honors. Other past recipients of the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards include Aaron Donald, Chase Young, and Luke Kuechly. He is a larger OLB than Milano, 4 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier, but is projected to run a 4.8 40 time, just a bit slower than Milano’s 4.67 recorded time at the 2017 combine.
Lastly is Jabril Cox, an OLB out of LSU who seems to have an uncanny ability to find the ball, posting 9 interceptions and 3 pick-sixes in the past 4 years, including 3 interceptions and 1 pick-six this year. Also a bit larger than Milano, standing tall at 6’4, he is an amazing story that fits the Bills mentality. Coming from FCS football at North Dakota State, he was brought up to LSU for his senior year where he excelled.
Buffalo has a history of targeting underdogs and hard workers and this man perfectly fits that mentality. He should be available for the Bills’ second pick, being projected to go early 3rd with the possibility of falling towards the 4th.
One possibility that few people seem to be considering is the chance that the Bills simply move around some of the assets they have. A few players have the possibility to fill Matt Milano’s role immediately: DE A.J. Epenesa, OLB A.J. Klein, or LB Darron Lee.
A.J. Epenesa is regarded as a defensive end, however he could possibly move into a large linebacker role. Currently, he is somewhat buried in the depth chart and could feasibly take a risk by moving to outside linebacker, taking on a Lorenzo Alexander-esque role. Becoming an edge rusher that wouldn’t necessarily fill Milano’s role could provide more pressure on a Bills’ roster that is in dire need of it.
A.J. Klein is another name that comes to mind when thinking of Bills players that could move into a larger role. Klein came into his own last season, racking up 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. He could be the replacement the Bills need at a cheap price. He is under contract for the next two seasons and would welcome more playing time, filling the hole Milano left behind.
While it is going to be difficult to replace Milano, Klein offers the highest upside and best possibility to fill the gap left behind.
Another possibility is current practice squad linebacker Darron Lee, a late-season signing and certified draft bust. After being drafted in the first round in 2016, he has already moved from the Jets to the Chiefs and now the Bills while accumulating a whopping 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions.
Similar to Tyus Bowser, there is always a possibility that a new scheme and change of scenery may provide better results, but due to low expectations, he should cost little to bring back for another year or two. Probably better suited as a backup, he would be a small band-aid on the wound unless he has a miraculous shift in his career.
Overall my personal favorite picks are either Haason Reddick out of free agency, Zaven Collins with the Bills 30th overall pick, or A.J. Klein moving into Milano’s role. Time will tell what the Bills do, perhaps even Milano will come back after seeing the other offers. All we can do is speculate until the new season starts. NFL Free Agency starts March 15.
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