Buffalo Bills: Defensive Position-by-Position and Depth-Chart Analysis
Go ahead, Buffalo Bills fans, take a moment to let it all out. Vent your frustrations.
There, hopefully you feel a little better about the Bills defense having to replace one of the league's most exciting rookies in 2013.
After losing Kiko Alonso for the year, the Bills defense looks a little different than it did before America's birthday. Alonso will be missed, but it doesn't mean the Bills D will be a sieve in 2014. There are still plenty of players ready to keep the unit successful.
As we recover from the holiday weekend, let's break down the rest of the Bills defense and look at each position's depth chart. We'll sort out what changes will be made to the linebacking unit, now that it is sans Alonso, and we'll look at a few other starting roles that could be up for grabs.
Left Defensive End
Starter: Mario Williams
Defensive end is one of the Bills' thinnest position groups.
The left defensive end spot will me manned by Mario Williams, who had 13 sacks in 2013. Williams is one of the best defensive players on the Bills, and it is likely he will see the majority of the snaps at defensive end.
There isn't much experience behind Williams. The depth chart put out by Ourlads.com lists Jarius Wynn and Ikponmwosa Igbinosun as Williams' backups. Wynn is a former sixth-round pick who is on his fifth team in seven years, and he has 8.5 career sacks. Igbinosun was an undrafted free agent in 2012 whom the Bills signed to a reserve/futures deal in December. He has yet to play in a professional game.
So yeah, the talent pool at defensive end is pretty shallow for the Bills. Manny Lawson is a veteran who can spell either defensive end, so that will help a little bit. However, the Bills will rely heavily on their starting pass-rushers, unless someone surprises in training camp.
Starters: Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus
The Bills have one of the best interior defensive-line duos in the league with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Both players went to the Pro Bowl last season, and they are looking to improve on that success under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
We're still waiting for the resolution of Dareus' legal troubles as well as whatever suspension may or may not come from the NFL. Williams, however, is as healthy as he's been in several years after undergoing Achilles surgery in the last two offseasons.
Should Dareus be given some time off by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Alan Branch and Stefan Charles are the likely options to take his place. Branch played in all 16 games for the Bills last year, compiling 39 combined tackles in a reserve role. Charles is more of a mystery as he only played in eight games in 2013, which was his first NFL season.
Corbin Bryant will also provide depth behind Williams and Dareus. Schwartz told BuffaloBills.com he will "need some depth" at defensive tackle to "keep throwing fastballs" at opposing offensive lines since they don't generally rotate players.
Right Defensive End
Starter: Jerry Hughes
Bookending Mario Williams on the defensive line will be Jerry Hughes, who had a successful 10-sack season under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in 2013.
Per Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News, Hughes was one of the best players on the field during spring practices. Gaughan did note that it's easier for defensive ends to have success when the team is in shorts, but Hughes' play was impressive nonetheless.
Schwartz told Gaughan Hughes "can change the game with a pass rush" and that Hughes will rotate between standing up and having his hand in the dirt, causing opposing quarterbacks to have to figure out if he is rushing or playing in coverage.
Behind Hughes, Lawson can step in and rush on passing downs. Other than those players, there aren't many proven options to provide any depth. Young players such as Jacquies Smith will have to impress in training camp to earn roster spots.
Starter: Keith Rivers
Pour some out for Alonso.
After he tore his ACL, the Bills were left to find a new player to start at weak-side linebacker. ESPN.com's Mike Rodak says (subscription required) the first option will be Keith Rivers, who will have to move over from the strong side.
Losing Alonso hurts, but the Bills have some depth at linebacker that could keep it from being a devastating loss. Rodak also mentioned rookie third-round pick Preston Brown, who impressed coaches throughout minicamp, per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com.
To create even more options, the Bills could look to the free-agent market. If Buffalo signed someone like, say, Jason Babin, who was recently released by the Jacksonville Jaguars, it would kill two birds with one stone. Babin would fortify the defensive-end group while simultaneously allowing Manny Lawson to get time at linebacker.
As training camp gets underway, it will be interesting to see how the Bills look to replace Alonso.
Starter: Brandon Spikes
In switching to a 4-3 defense, middle linebacker was a position the Bills looked to improve after planning to move Alonso outside.
Enter Brandon Spikes, who came to the Bills on a one-year deal during free agency. Since Spikes is already in a contract year, he should be looking to have his game on point to try and earn a long-term deal after the season.
Spikes is a run-stopping specialist, but he also wants to prove he can be a three-down linebacker. Still, it seems the Bills are looking at other options in nickel packages. Preston Brown was working with the first-team nickel package during minicamp, per Chris Brown. With Alonso out, Brown could be moved all over the field as needed, including as Spikes' backup.
Other players who could be in the mix include Ty Powell and rookie Jimmy Gaines, also per Brown's article, but both will be fighting for roster spots during camp.
Starter: Nigel Bradham
Since Alonso's injury could send Rivers to the weak side, someone else will have to step in and start on the strong side.
Right now it seems like Nigel Bradham will get the nod to start the season. It could be worse for the Bills, as Bradham was recently named the team's secret superstar by Pro Football Focus.
Via Chris Brown at BuffaloBills.com, PFF writer Peter Damilatis told The John Murphy Show that Bradham had the "best run-defense grade" of any Bills linebacker, even though he played far less snaps than players such as Alonso or Mario Williams.
Damilatis also said PFF's metrics show Bradham could be a "capable three-down linebacker" because of his skills in pass coverage.
Aside from Bradham, there are a slew of rookies looking to earn playing time at linebacker. Randell Johnson and Darrin Kitchens are a few names to keep an eye on as training camp gets underway.
Starters: Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin
All things considered, cornerback is as deep a position as the Bills have.
Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, the incumbent starters, will likely reprise their roles in 2014. We've discussed in the past Gilmore's potential to turn into a star, and McKelvin is coming off one of his best seasons in Buffalo.
There are also some capable players behind McKelvin and Gilmore. Corey Graham came over in the offseason from Baltimore after winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens a couple of years back. He could get time at corner and safety, depending on the situation.
Competing with Graham for the starting nickel-corner job will be the appropriately named Nickell Robey. Robey won the nickel role last year after going undrafted, and he proved to be a potential stud in the making.
Schwartz is already impressed with Robey's game. "If you measure heart, if you measure things like that, he's six-foot-ten," Schwartz said of the 5'7" Robey, via Chris Brown. And Robey has the right attitude as he is embracing the competition with Graham.
Rounding out the depth chart will be Ron Brooks and rookie Ross Cockrell. Cockrell could even overtake Brooks on the list, as he is another first-year player who has impressed early on, per Schwartz, via Brown.
Starter: Aaron Williams
Jairus Byrd's migration (so many bird puns!) left a hole in the back of the Bills defense. The Bills, however, think they have a capable player to take over the free-safety duties.
That player is Aaron Williams, to whom the Bills gave a contract extension in the offseason. The fourth-year man out of Texas tied for the team lead with four interceptions in 2013.
Williams' backup on Ourlads.com is listed as Jonathan Meeks, but that may not end up being the case. Meeks and Duke Williams will be competing to start at strong safety, but they aren't the favorites at this point. Duke Williams seems ready to take his game to the next level, so he should find himself higher on the depth chart than Meeks.
But Meeks' roster spot could be in jeopardy by the 2014 version of Nickell Robey. Like Robey, Kenny Ladler is an undrafted player from a big school who is showing potential early on. With a strong camp, Ladler could easily find himself ahead of Meeks.
Starter: Da'Norris Searcy
As we just mentioned, this will be a position that is up for grabs in training camp. However, because of his experience, Da'Norris Searcy has to be the favorite to earn the job to start the season.
Searcy was getting most of the first-team reps during OTAs, so that should continue until someone overtakes him. Leading the team with two defensive touchdowns in 2013, Searcy was also pegged by Chris Brown at BuffaloBills.com as a defensive playmaker to look out for.
Should Searcy be the starter, either of Duke Williams or Jonathan Meeks will back him up. We talked about how Ladler is also in the mix, but we won't know for sure how the depth chart will look until later in the summer.