Buffalo Bills second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso had an absolutely phenomenal rookie year, as he was simply all over the place, making plays in every facet of the game. It’s not often that a rookie linebacker is able to immediately establish themselves as a top player at the position and make a big impact in all three phases, but Alonso was a stat-sheet monster in his first year out of Oregon. One of the lynchpins of the Bills defense with Jairus Byrd now with the New Orleans Saints, his season-ending ACL tear this offseason is a huge blow, but the Bills can survive without him based on their depth at linebacker.
It will be interesting to see if Nigel Bradham or rookie Preston Brown starts in Alonso’s place as the team’s weak-side linebacker, and I have a feeling the job will go to the more experienced Bradham. That isn’t just because Bradham is more experienced, though, as he also seems like the better player in coverage. While Brown had a faster three-cone drill at the combine (more explosiveness, short-area quickness), Bradham had a higher vertical leap (which usually equates to more athleticism) and a significantly faster 40 time. He has just two career passes defended in two seasons, but the Pro Football Focus gave him a positive grade for his work in coverage last season, so we’ll see if that can continue.
Based on observations from beat writers, it seems like the Bills are high on Brown’s ability to be a three-down player in this league, but I’m not as convinced. In all honesty, he looks comparable to free-agent signing Brandon Spikes, in that both are two-down thumpers who excel in run defense but have some struggles in pass coverage. Hopefully my evaluation of Brown is off, but Bradham looks like a better fit in nickel packages despite the fact that he wasn’t guaranteed a roster spot before Alonso’s injury. Thus, he’s clearly the biggest benefactor in all of this.
As it stands right now with Alonso expected to miss the season due to a 7-9 month recovery window, the Bills will start Spikes in the middle, fellow offseason addition Keith Rivers will be the SAM, and Bradham and Brown will battle it out for Alonso’s starting position at WILL. Bradham’s speed seems to make him a better fit there, but we’re in for a huge training camp battle there.
While Alonso racked up tackles and is certainly a good player in run defense, I don’t see the Bills suffering much of a drop off in that department. I mean, Bradham had 51 tackles in just 288 snaps last season, and he’s proven himself to be a reliable tackler and a consistent run-stopper. Brown, on the other hand, is touted as a run defender after being an explosive, downhill run-stuffer at the heart of the Louisville Cardinals defense. The Bills can’t truly replace Alonso, but their run defense could be even better than last year once you factor in the addition of Spikes, who is probably the best linebacker against the run in this league.
Where the Bills will miss Alonso the most is in the passing game, because he was simply dominant in that part of the game. It’s so difficult to find linebackers who can excel against the run and the pass, because most players are just specialists against the run (Spikes) or against the pass (Bobby Carpenter is an example off the top of my head). Alonso quickly showed greatness in both, and his playmaking ability will also be missed, specifically in the passing game. I can’t see anybody who can replace that, though I wonder if Bradham’s great speed for the linebacker position could translate into some upside in coverage. Rivers has never been much of a pass defender, so he’s not going to have a significant effect replacing Alonso’s four interceptions with just two in his entire, five-year career.
Even though the Bills could find themselves in a huge pinch in pass coverage after being fourth in the league against tight ends and second in the league against RBs, per Football Outsiders stats, I think they are still fine at linebacker. Spikes, Rivers, Bradham, and Brown give the Bills a quality quartet, and I think they could get creative and move the athletic Manny Lawson back at LB if they feel like they really need to. Lawson is an underrated linebacker in coverage, as he can hold down the fort with tight ends. Their ability to defend the pass as a unit will be called into question without their star, but Alonso’s lengthy absence (likely for the whole year) won’t be a death-knell. At the very least, opposing running backs won’t be ecstatic to play the Bills defense any time soon due to their defensive line, Spikes, and the other LBs.