ORCHARD PARK — A.J. Klein can’t quit Sean McDermott. And the feeling is mutual.
The 32-year-old linebacker is entering his 11th season in the NFL and eight of them have been with McDermott as the head coach or defensive coordinator. Even last year, when Klein spent two games apiece with the Ravens and Bears, he found his way back to Buffalo to finish the season.
Klein’s greatest value has never been as a sideline-to-sideline marquee linebacker, considering he’s only started more than 10 games in a season once under McDermott. It’s his knowledge of McDermott’s defensive scheme and his ability to communicate with the other linebackers and the rest of the defense.
It’s how he always somehow winds up in the lineup.
Klein was signed by Buffalo to be the strongside linebacker in 2020, but his role diminished as the team trended toward its current five-defensive back scheme and his starts dropped from 11 to 4. But he spelled Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano at various times due to injuries and was much better at middle linebacker, where he could blitz more often and eat up blockers in the run game to free up Milano.
When Edmunds was injured last season, Klein was re-signed for depth, but as Tyrel Dodson was struggling at middle linebacker, Klein was inserted into the lineup and played all 71 defensive snaps against the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Klein was only back with the team for less than a week, but he was so familiar with the defense that if he may get beaten by someone faster or more agile, but rarely due to a mental error.
“I’ve been in it long enough, and I have a comfort with it,” Klein told the Gazette after practice Thursday. “Obviously, I backed it up with how I play and how I prepare. It doesn’t matter where I’m at depth chart-wise, I’ve been the same person, the same consistent process year after year. Wherever the chips fall at the end of it, that’s what happens.”
The Bills brought Klein back on a one-year deal in April, but it wasn’t to be a starter. With Edmunds leaving for a hefty contract with the Bears, Buffalo needed a linebacker who knew the defense and had NFL experience.
But in discussing Edmunds’ replacement, general manager Brandon Beane said the competition would fall to Dodson, Terrel Bernard or Baylon Spector, noting Klein as a “depth” player. Twenty-three days into training camp, Bernard appeared ready to seize the job before a hamstring injury sidelined him last week, and the Bills seem no closer to making a decision.
“I think there’s room for improvement, quite honestly,” McDermott said Thursday. “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. … The total job description of running a defense, leading the defense, standing in front of the huddle, communicating the defense. It all goes together, it’s all connected.”
Klein has gradually moved up the depth chart during training camp, which started with him playing weakside linebacker. He moved ahead of Spector at middle linebacker, and when Bernard got injured, Klein started playing with No. 2 unit before the team broke camp at St. John Fisher University.
No player on the roster has more experience playing with McDermott than Klein, so it’s only natural to fall back to the player with the most familiarity in a pinch. It wouldn’t be surprising for Klein to replace Dodson — who started against the Colts in the preseason opener — or at least get snaps with the No. 1 defense against the Steelers on Saturday.
“He leads, he communicates well, he knows what we want to get done and I think those are three important areas to basically being the coach on the field that we need,” said McDermott, who had a long discussion with the linebackers on the field after practice Thursday. “He’s mature, he’s been around the NFL and this defense for quite some time. Obviously there’s a lot of trust and faith in him.”
The importance of communication may seem like an old coaching trope, but the Bills are adamant at having the middle linebacker wear the radio inside his helmet and relay the defensive signals. Many players, like Spector, played in college defenses in which multiple linebackers have communication responsibilities and radios are not permitted in helmets in the NCAA.
Younger linebackers like Spector can watch veterans like Klein or ask questions because he has lasted over a decade in the NFL more through his brains than athleticism. Klein can understand what to communicate to the rest of the defense based on an offense’s formation, personnel and motions, and Spector says that everything after the snap is easier if the right communication occurs beforehand.
“I really just see how they process some things,” said Spector, a 2022 seventh-round pick. “How they go through some of the calls in their heads and what they’re seeing in formations. Really just picking their brains and really what they see pre-snap.”
Naturally, Klein would prefer to be on the field for every snap, but he’s still willing to offer his experience to younger players if they ask or give it to them anyway if that’s what’s necessary for the Bills to be successful.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily me giving knowledge, I think it’s just being a good teammate in this league,” Klein said. “You’ve got to bring the guys around you, whether it’s this position, D-line, safeties — whatever. The communication between position groups makes the defense better as a whole. We have a cohesive group and we push each other. So at the end of the day, we want to put the best product out there.”