The Buffalo Bills’ defense was dealt a devastating blow Tuesday night, when the news that Kiko Alonso tore his ACL broke. Kiko Alonso was one of the top rookies of the 2013 season and was primed for an even better sophomore campaign. Alonso was in the process of transitioning to the weakside linebacker position, while free agent addition, Brandon Spikes, would take over “Mike” linebacker duties.
Kiko Alonso is one of the few true three-down linebackers in the entire NFL, so Alonso expected to miss the entire 2014 season, a linebacker group that looked ready to perform at a high level is left with significant question marks.
Let’s take a look at the players most likely to step into Kiko’s shoes at weakside linebacker in 2014.
Player: Nigel Bradham
2013 Snap Data: 288 snaps (25.8%)
Nigel Bradham is arguably the most athletic of the Bills’ linebackers, but he hasn’t been able to fight his way into significant playing time. However, when he’s been on the field on either defense or special teams, he’s found a way to consistently be around the ball.
Prior to the news of Alonso’s injury, it appeared that Bradham’s only chance of seeing playing time would be a tryout on the strong-side. Now, it appears that Nigel Bradham will be the first man up at weakside linebacker.
Bradham has the athleticism needed to fit at the “WILL” spot, but he’s been lost in pass coverage at times, one of the primary roles of the weakside linebacker.
However, with Bradham entering his third season as a pro, he just might be ready to take the next step in his career.
Player: Keith Rivers
2013 Snap Data: 429 snaps (42.4%)
With Manny Lawson moving to defensive end, the Bills brought in Keith Rivers, a former top 10 draft pick to take over the strongside linebacker duties. Rivers hasn’t lived up to his draft status, but he’s an adequate run defender that can set the edge.
Rivers has experience at weakside linebacker, but he’s been a big liability in coverage throughout his career. At this point in his career, Rivers probably shouldn’t be considered as anything more than a role player, and a switch back to “WILL” wouldn’t do much to benefit the Bills’ defense.
Player: Preston Brown
2013 Snap Data: N/A
The Bills continued their offseason linebacker overhaul with the selection of Louisville middle linebacker Preston Brown in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Brown is a big, strong, physical player that used primarily as a downhill player with the Cardinals.
As a rookie, Brown is expected to serve as Brandon Spikes’ backup, but the fact that he was used as the first-team linebacker in nickel packages during OTA’s is telling. Brown was widely viewed as strictly a two-down linebacker entering the draft, which is why he fell to the third round. However, to me, his overall athleticism was underrated throughout the draft process. He’s not a sideline-to-sideline player, but he has good instincts and flows to the ball well when sinking in zone coverage.
Brown was selected with the intentions of taking over for Brandon Spikes, who only signed a one-year deal, so it remains to be seen whether the coaching staff will even try him at outside linebacker, but it might be something to keep an eye on.
Player: Ty Powell
Snap Data: 15 snaps
One wildcard that could emerge in training camp as an option for the weakside linebacker position is Ty Powell. Powell is a freak of an athlete that played defensive end at Harding, a D-II school. He was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round, but the Bills claimed him early in the season. Powell was mentioned by Doug Marrone as a “core” special teams player. Powell has prototypical measurable for the weakside spot, so he could provide some value there as a reserve.