The emergence of Buffalo Bills’ weakside linebacker Nigel Bradham in the 2014 season was one of the more underrated storylines of the year. The team’s fourth-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was primarily a rotational player during his first two years, but when Kiko Alonso suffered a torn ACL prior to training camp, Bradham was pushed into a starting role in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’ 4-3 defense. After serving a one-game suspension, Bradham went on to record 104 tackles, six for a loss, 2.5 sacks, 7 passes defensed and two forced fumbles in 831 defensive snaps, 84.3-percent of the team’s total.
When Doug Marrone opted out of his contract, Rex Ryan was hired and let Schwartz go in order to install his hybrid, 3-4 based defensive scheme. The emergence of Bradham, who’s 25-years old and stands 6’2” and 240-pounds made Alonso, a second-round pick in the 2013 draft, expendable, trading him to the Eagles for star running back LeSean McCoy.
The move came as a shock to many. After all, “The Legend of Kiko” had an incredible rookie campaign that nearly won him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, as talented as Alonso is he just wasn’t a great fit for Ryan’s defense that requires physicality and the ability to fight through traffic from his inside linebackers, where Alonso is best as a “see and hit” player that flows to the ball in space.
So what can we expect out of Bradham in 2015, where he’s projected to be the team’s Will inside linebacker alongside Preston Brown, who’ll play the “Mike”?
Rex Ryan’s defenses have typically been dominant against the run, with much credit due to his talented inside linebackers that have consisted of players like Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, David Harris, and most recently Demario Davis. Rex’s inside linebackers need to be physical, downhill players that react quickly and will initiate contact with pulling guards or leading fullbacks. Nigel Bradham is a violent athlete that plays 110 miles-per-hour, particularly against the run.
In the following play against the Minnesota Vikings, Bradham is lined up over the “A” gap from an inside linebacker position in a 3rd-and-2 situation. Teddy Bridgewater hands the ball off to Jerick McKinnon out of a 3×1 shotgun formation and Bradham reads the run, scraping laterally before shooting the gap and blowing up the play at the line of scrimmage.
Bradham showed great spatial awareness, knowing how to use his hands and athleticism to fight through traffic and make plays. Here against the Patriots, Bradham reads his keys immediately, sets his target and explodes past the lead blocker to bring down the running back for a loss.
What makes Bradham so much fun to watch is the energy and physical nature he brings to the defense. He’s always looking to hit someone, even when he’s not in position to directly take down the ball-carrier.
Due to his combination of speed, power, agility and change-of-direction ability, Bradham excelled in coverage last year, allowing the second-fewest yards surrendered per snap in coverage (0.60), trailing only teammate Preston Brown. He was targeted 48 times, the 11th highest total among 4-3 outside linebackers, but allowed just 236 yards (5th fewest) at a 6.9 yards-per-catch average (1stt) and didn’t give up a touchdown. His 72.9 passer rating-against was 2nd best at his position. In the following clip, Bradham shows off the ability to turn his hips and run the seam with a tight end, before dropping into a hook zone and trailing the running back.
He’s got great change-of-direction ability that’s evident in the next play. Bradham drops into coverage with the tight end Andrew Quarless and is able to stay on him as the play breaks down. As Aaron Rodgers rolls out to the right, Bradham reads his eyes and breaks on the ball, getting a hand in front of Quarless to break up the pass.
Bradham is quick to react, showing excellent closing speed to make the tackle from a distance, preventing any yards-after-the-catch.
Nigel Bradham was sent as a third-down blitzer last season and was extremely effective, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ most efficient pass rushing 4-3 outside linebacker. While he only recorded 2.5 sacks, he generated six quarterback hits and nine hurries in 46 pass rush snaps, a disruption rate of about 37-percent.
Here against the Chiefs, Bradham is sent on a blitz through the “B” gap, between the tackle and guard. His speed is no match for the center, who gets turned around as Bradham delivers a shot to Alex Smith’s midsection as he just gets off the pass.
Bradham has a high motor and he plays through the whistle, as you can see in the following play against the Cleveland Browns. Sent on a blitz, Bradham is brought down by a cut-block from the running back, but he gets back up and sacks Brian Hoyer.
Fit In Rex Ryan’s Defense
In 2014, Nigel Bradham was the “Will” outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. When Jim Schwartz would show “wide 9” alignments, Bradham saw most of his snaps lining up over the “B” gap. In Ryan’s scheme, he’ll be moved around, but typically align over the “A” gap, between the center and guard, or directly over the left guard.
Bradham’s ability to play the run, stack and shed blockers, blitz and drop into coverage makes him an ideal fit for Ryan’s scheme, while the attitude and energy he plays with matches what Rex brings to the team.
While Kiko Alonso is a talented player, Nigel Bradham brings more versatility and probably more overall ability to the Bills’ defense and he should have a key role going forward.