ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -No need to remind linebacker Angelo Crowell how quickly his role and responsibilities have increased in the Buffalo defense.
A year ago, Crowell was referring to London Fletcher as ``Pops'' for being the linebacking corps' senior member. Now it's a title that falls on him.
Entering his fifth NFL season, Crowell is being asked to lead and help settle what will be a young and revamped unit. The Bills lost Fletcher in free agency and traded two-time Pro Bowl selection Takeo Spikes to Philadelphia this offseason.
``It's kind of shocking they're not here,'' Crowell said of Fletcher and Spikes, who had 18 years of NFL experience between them. ``Yeah, I'm the guy. I'm the oldest guy in the room now.''
Hold off on the ``Pops'' references, though.
``I'm only going into my third year as a starter, so I really feel young,'' Crowell said. ``I've still got a lot to learn.''
He's going to have to, considering the Bills' defense is a work in progress after also losing star cornerback Nate Clements, who signed with San Francisco this offseason.
Together, Fletcher, Spikes and Clements combined for 312 of 769 tackles and seven of 13 interceptions the defense managed last year. And that was on a unit that finished a mediocre 18th in yards allowed.
Crowell is unfazed, noting the defense has young and talented players prepared to step up, and the unit is more familiar entering its second season under coordinator Perry Fewell.
For Crowell, this is the next big step of his career since the Bills selected him in the third round of the 2003 draft out of Virginia. After being limited to playing special teams in his first two seasons, Crowell got his break in 2005, earning a starting job after Spikes tore his Achilles' tendon in Week 3.
Crowell performed so well that he won the weak-side job in training camp last summer, a move that led the team to release veteran Jeff Posey. Crowell finished with 95 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 12 games before breaking his left leg.
Fully recovered, he'll play the strong side this season, with second-year player Keith Ellison slated to play the weak side. Second-year player John DiGiorgio and rookie Paul Posluszny, a second-round draft pick, are competing to start in the middle.
Crowell's abilities and experience aside, the Bills are making sure not to put too much of a burden on his shoulders. That was evident during minicamp practices this past month. Crowell has stood to the side in the huddle while the middle linebacker calls the plays, as Fletcher did last year.
``I think the important thing for Angelo is for him to play ball and not try to do something that is out of character for him,'' Fewell said. ``Yeah, he is the older guy now. But he leads better by example. ... He is one of the guys that is a proven playmaker for us, and we just want to use the most that he can offer.''
Crowell's strengths are his speed and ability to drop back into coverage. He's also earned a reputation for being a hard and capable hitter, averaging more than eight tackles a game over his last two seasons.
He's also maturing off the field.
This offseason, Crowell took part in an eight-day, NFL-sponsored business management and entrepreneurship program at The Wharton School. The topics included real estate and stock market investing.
``It's part of being a professional, educating yourself on the football field and off,'' said Crowell, who was an anthropology major at Virginia.
He remembers when he first arrived in Buffalo, knowing how difficult it would be to crack a starting lineup made up of Fletcher, Spikes and Posey.
``Coach first told me, `I don't know how you're going to get out on the field because I can't take those guys off.' And I understood that,'' Crowell recalled. ``Those guys are gone, yeah. I just see the same role for me now, helping the young guys come along.''
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