Bills starting middle linebacker spot still unsettled entering preseason finale at Chicago

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Bills coach Sean McDermott opened training camp saying he had a timeline in mind of when he preferred having someone secure Buffalo's starting middle linebacker spot.

Nearly a month later, the key defensive position remains unsettled, with Buffalo preparing to complete its preseason at Chicago on Saturday.

Coincidentally, the Bills will face a Bears opponent featuring Tremaine Edmunds, who signed with Chicago in free agency this offseason after spending his first five NFL seasons as Buffalo’s starting middle linebacker.

What was initially supposed to be a two-player competition between Terrel Bernard and Tyrel Dodson, has now expanded to feature A.J. Klein. And it has even included rookie Baylon Spector getting extra snaps at the position with Bernard having missed much of the past three weeks with a hamstring injury.

McDermott, on Thursday, sidestepped a question on whether he’s behind schedule in announcing a starter by saying: “The important thing right now is where we’re trying to go. I thought the middle linebackers had a good day (in practice) yesterday, and that’s got to continue to move forward.”

What’s troubling are the concerns he’s previously expressed.

In assessing positional competitions on Aug. 10, McDermott said there were some battles where he wished a player had begun to separate himself, without specifically mentioning middle linebacker.

A week later, he was more blunt in referencing the position.

“Right now, I think there’s room for improvement, quite honestly,” McDermott said.

“I think that we’ve got to do a better job with leading the defense. We got to do a better job with communication, execution, so that’s an area of concern right now,” he added. “It’s in the job description, right?”

The Bills have other positional battles to settle, including the starting cornerback spot opposite Tre’Davious White.

McDermott is taking the unusual step of having quarterback Josh Allen and his starters play against Chicago, though he wouldn’t say for how long. That’s a departure from the past, where McDermott traditionally sat his starters in the final preseason game.

“Every preseason is a little bit different based on where guys are and where the team is,” McDermott said. “It’s what I feel like is best for the team right now.”

At middle linebacker, Dodson was the initial front-runner after starting and playing 29 defensive snaps in a preseason-opening 23-19 win over Indianapolis. Dodson also started last weekend in a 27-15 loss at Pittsburgh, but eventually split series with Klein in a game the defense was burned by Jaylen Warren’s game-opening 62-yard touchdown run.

Replacing Edmunds was never going to be easy once it became evident the salary cap-strapped Bills were not going to be able to afford him. The 25-year-old’s contract with the Bears is worth $72 million over four years with $50 million guaranteed.

In Buffalo, the 2018 first-round draft pick was the team's on-field defensive play-caller and adept at using his athletic 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame to defend the run and pass in the Bills' two-linebacker system rounded out by Matt Milano.

Assistant head coach Eric Washington, who partially oversees the entire defense, this week said there was urgency to get the position settled, while saying there’s still time to make a decision.

“I wouldn’t call it uncertainty,” Washington said. “Right now we have two or three guys we really feel great about, and they’re making our decision extremely tough. So you can look at it that way, but disappointment, absolutely not.”

Dodson, who was re-signed to a one-year contract in March, is entering his fourth NFL season since signing with the Bills as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2019. He’s appeared in 42 games, mostly in a special teams role, with five career starts at linebacker.

Though somewhat undersized for the position at 6 feet and 237 pounds, Dodson has shown signs of a hard-hitting ability and a fiery demeanor that has occasionally led to him getting involved in skirmishes with teammates during practice.

Dodson declined an interview request on Thursday.

Klein has the edge in experience. He’s entering his 11th NFL season, and fourth in Buffalo, where he’s previously filled in when Edmunds was sidelined by injury.

NOTES: Projected starting left guard Connor McGovern is sidelined indefinitely after hurting his right knee in practice Wednesday. ... Backup QB Matt Barkley is not expected to play after being sidelined since hurting his throwing elbow at Pittsburgh last weekend.