By Chris Trapasso
The Bills need a quarterback.
That we know.
Adding a big-bodied speedster on the outside to attract attention away from Stevie Johnson would undoubtedly help the Bills' offense in 2013 and beyond, as well.
But relatively lost in the shuffle is how desperately Buffalo needs an impact linebacker.
The need certainly is not as flashy as the acquisition of a quarterback or wide receiver, that's for sure.
The hole at linebacker was highlighted when the Bills cut ties with veteran Nick Barnett, a guy who manned the weak-side spot for the past two seasons, but frankly, the need has been there for a while.
Though Barnett brought life to the linebacking corps after Paul Posluszny — a tackling machine who simply didn't make an impact close to the line of scrimmage — was signed by the Jaguars, the Packers' castoff was a liability in coverage and only made a few splash plays per game against the run.
Kelvin Sheppard is athletic, but similarly to Barnett, he lacks the sheer speed and instincts to beat running backs to the corner and oftentimes gets engulfed by blockers.
However, with a more rangy weak-side guy next to him, Sheppard should be given another chance to succeed in a hybrid scheme. Then again, replacing him with a prospect who possesses decidedly sharper instincts, better sideline-to-sideline burst and more natural coverage skills wouldn't be a horrible development.
The verdict is still out on 2012 rookie Nigel Bradham, but he appears to have the physical traits to be a viable strong-side 'backer. With more experience, his play-diagnosing skills should improve.
Because the NFL has evolved into a passing league, outside linebackers who can cover a lot of space quickly, are comfortable dropping into coverage and can rapidly get to the quarterback on blitzes are more valuable than ever before.
That type of player is precisely what the Bills need as the Doug Marrone/Mike Pettine era begins in Buffalo.
Without someone truly special in its linebacker contingent, Buffalo will continue to struggle mightily on defense.