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The progression of Bills’ second year linebacker Kiko Alonso hit a significant road block earlier this week when it was announced that Alonso had torn his left ACL while working out in Oregon.
Alonso was still in the midst of recovering from surgery in January to repair a torn hip labrum when the Bills’ defense was dealt a much worse blow. Alonso is expected to miss the entire season as even the most optimistic prognostications put him at seven to nine months recovery time.
Coupled with the fact that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus could be looking at a suspension from the NFL totaling several games due to his recent off-field issues, the Bills may be facing the prospect of playing a significant amount of the season without two of their best defensive players.
How do you replace a player that produced 159 tackles last season, good for third most in the NFL? Only Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechly have accumulated more tackles in their rookie seasons than Alonso did in his. Alonso was also tied for the most interceptions on the team as well. The Bills certainly hit on a hidden gem when they chose to overlook his checkered past and take a chance on Alonso in the second round last year.
Is it possible that lightning could strike twice in consecutive years?
The Bills undoubtedly hope so as rookie third round selection, Preston Brown out of Louisville has emerged as the favorite to replace Alonso.
We’ll get to Brown’s ability to replace Alonso shortly. Let’s take a look at the Bills other options first. While the Bills’ defense struggled against the run last season – ranking 27th in the league – it experienced a substantial progression in almost every other area in Mike Pettine’s one season at the helm.
In Pettine’s 3-4 scheme, Alonso served as the middle linebacker, but with the hiring of new defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz and yet another return to the 4-3, the Bills had intended to shift Alonso to weak side linebacker where he would function as a run-and-hit outside linebacker designed to upgrade their run defense. In Schwartz’s system, the weak side backer is the most important position among the linebacking corps as all plays are channeled through that side. So it was not surprising that Alonso, by far their best linebacker, would be asked to undertake that role.
The Bills signed Brandon Spikes in the offseason to take over for Alonso in the middle. Five-year veteran, Keith Rivers was also brought in because he has shown the flexibility throughout his career to play on either the strong or weak side. However, Alonso played every single defensive snap for the Bills last season and they do not have that type of linebacker anywhere on their roster. Spikes excels against the run but is a liability in coverage so minimizing his time spent on the field during obvious passing downs is essential to getting the best out of him.
Rivers was only the fourth most-used linebacker on the New York Giants’ roster last season and he has had difficulty staying on the field due to a host of injuries throughout his career that have depleted some of his range.
Third year player, Nigel Bradham, represents another option and has displayed some ability to play in coverage and enough athleticism that he could be one of the better alternatives to replace Alonso.
Yet, Bradham played less than 20 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps last season despite being given every opportunity for the last two years to step up and earn more time on the field. Bradham has totaled just 108 tackles in two seasons even though he would see the field in all 32 games.
This year must really be the breakout season that the Bills front office has waited on if he is going to offer the Bills even half of Alonso’s production. Manny Lawson is another possibility. Lawson, a career linebacker, starting 15 games as the Bills’ strong side backer last season.
However, in Schwartz’s scheme he is a better fit as a defensive end and a move back to the linebacking corps would need Lawson, at age 30, to learn a new skill – how to play off the line more.
It is not easy to learn a new method of playing the game nine years into your career and asking Lawson to do so more than likely will not be effective as keeping him on the defensive line where the Bills are already lacking some depth as was intended before Alonso’s injury.
Lawson and Bradham will most certainly be in the mix to move into Alonso’s role but the most likely – and the one the Bills’ coaching staff and front office alike seem to prefer – is that Brown continues to show the fine form he showed at off-season workouts and wins the starting job. Brown drew praise from coaches with how seamlessly he picked up the Bills’ schemes and integrated into a new system.
However, it must be taken into account that Brown, who lead Louisville in tackles his last two seasons, played at middle linebacker in college and at OTAs and was drafted as such. Moving him to a new position as the weak side backer while he simultaneously navigates the transition from college to the pros is a lot to ask.
In fact heading into the draft most viewed Brown as a two down run stuffing linebacker – in the mold of Spikes – who was decent in space and demonstrated good short area lateral quickness. So the ability to work in coverage is there but the question remains as to whether he will develop into an every down linebacker in his first season in the league.
One other possibility that has not received much discussion but is an intriguing concept: the Bills could decide to use some of their safeties – Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams are a good bet – to fill the void caused by Alonso’s absence. Searcy and Williams could be asked to drop into the slot and cover more in various nickel and dime packages.
While not ideal the Bills are going to have to search for solutions on their current roster as there doesn’t appear to be much available in the way of a veteran linebacker on the open market at this juncture of the year.
As training camp approaches in just a few short weeks it is looking more and more probable that Spikes will stay in the middle and Rivers on the strong side as was the original plan and Preston Brown will be the one to step into Alonso’s big shoes.
The Bills will not be replacing Alonso’s energy and skill any time soon but with an ‘all hands on deck approach’ the Bills may be able to decrease some of the damage caused by his loss.
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