Sean McDermott is an NFL head coach largely because of the what he achieved from 2011-2016 as the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. In each of his last five seasons in Carolina, the Panthers boasted a top-1o overall defense in the NFL. In Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos, McDermott’s defense only allowed one offensive touchdown in the contest despite Carolina losing 24-10.
Given his success in Carolina that led to an NFL head coaching gig, it would only make sense for McDermott to build a football team full of the similar ingredients that got him to where he is. One of the staples in McDermott’s dominant Carolina defenses was the linebacking duo of Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis who combined to form one of the league’s best pairings on the second level. When McDermott took over the Bills, nothing remotely close to those linebackers existed on the roster but that has since changed.
The Bills invested its second first-round selection in the 2018 Draft on linebacker Tremaine Edmunds whose ability to develop into a star and the face of Buffalo’s defense is evident 11 weeks into this season. But truth be told, Edmunds is far from Buffalo’s best off-ball linebacker right now; that honor belongs to Matt Milano. In fact, Milano isn’t just the Bills’ best linebacker, he’s among the best in all of the NFL. Pro Football Focus has Milano as the eight highest graded linebacker in the NFL.
A fifth-round pick in 2017, Milano appeared in all 16 games as a rookie while starting five. Earning more playing time as the season progressed, Milano flashed the playmaking potential that was unexpected from a Day 3 pick so early in his career. Watching him as a rookie left me excited for what Milano could become as a full-time starter. He earned that opportunity this season and is rewarding the Bills with outstanding play.
Starring on the NFL’s No. 2 overall ranked defense, Milano has been playmaking machine racking up 64 tackles, one sack, nine tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries in 11 starts this season. Milano is the just the second player in Bills’ history to have three interceptions and three rumble recoveries in a season and he’s done it in just 11 games. More impressively, Milano’s 6 takeaways on the season is tied for the NFL lead. Among the eight players with five or more takeaways this season, Milano is the only linebacker on the list with the other seven being defensive backs. It’s a testament to Milano’s instincts and ability to consistently be around the football.
The production Milano is enjoying so far in the NFL is not unlike what he experienced at Boston College. Milano started his college carer as a safety before moving to linebacker as a sophomore. In his final two seasons, Milano racked up 29.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, an interception, five pass breakups, five fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Despite the production, versatility and being named BC’s Team MVP in 2016, Milano slid to pick No. 163 overall in the 2017 Draft.
While Milano is a good athlete, his lack of size likely led to him not being a higher draft selection. Measuring 6-foot and 223 pounds, Milano is only in the seventh percentile for height and third percentile for weight for linebackers measured at the Combine since 2011. Milano is certainly on the smaller side but he’s a terrific fit for today’s NFL where offenses are predicated on spacing to attack defenses. His limited size hasn’t been a problem for him.
While Milano brings a balanced skill set to the table that is capable of making plays on any down, his best ability is how good he is in pass coverage. Pro Football Focus has Milano graded as the fifth best coverage linebacker in the NFL and it’s easy to see why when studying his game tape.
Lining up over all-everything Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski on this play, Milano has a difficult assignment, especially the redzone where Tom Brady loves to target his massive touchdown machine. Gronkowski releases off the ball trying to lull Milano on what appears to be a rub route before breaking on an out route. Milano ends up being the aggressor in the contact window and knocks Gronk off balance at the top of his route stem. Milano undercuts the route and deflects the pass at the catch point to force the incomplete pass. Despite conceding more than 40 pounds and six inches to Gronk, Milano holds his own in coverage and when exchanging power at the top of the route stem.
Having excellent play speed, processing skills and range are critical traits in today’s off-ball linebackers and Milano certainly checks those boxes. On this next rep, the Bears run an option play designed to get the lightning-quick Tarik Cohen a chance to turn the corner and hit a big play. Milano rapidly diagnoses the play, fluidly works laterally down the line of scrimmage, exhibits explosive burst to track down Cohen and finishes outside the numbers. Milano does a superb job of breaking down in space and securing the tackle. It appears that Cohen was surprised, expecting Milano to over-pursue him and cut back to the inside.
It’s not just speed, lateral mobility, processing and finishing skills that makes Milano such a dynamic defender, it’s that he does so while taking exceptional angles to the football so that he can be in position to make plays and take advantage of his other traits. As evidenced on the Cohen tackle and again on this rep, an offense believing it’s going to break Milano’s pursuit off-tackle is a bad idea.
Milano isn’t just a coverage linebacker with sideline-to-sideline range, he’s more than capable of attacking downhill and playing into the line of scrimmage. Again showcasing the ability to quickly and correctly diagnose the play, Milano rapidly fills the window downhill and tackles Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield for a loss.
Again, Milano may not be the biggest linebacker but he holds his own attacking downhill, playing off contact and plugging gaps against inside run plays.
Milano has been everything Buffalo could have envisioned him becoming and more as a fifth-round selection in 2017 already in his career. He’s been one of the NFL’s top defensive playmakers this season regardless of position and should pair with Edmunds to give Buffalo its long-term solution on the second level.
Milano’s play extends beyond that of a Day 3 draft steal, he belongs in the Pro Bowl discussion and he continues to prove that on a weekly basis.