"He's NFL ready. He understands the concepts that we're playing, they played a lot of them in college. And from a physical standpoint, it's hard in shorts to get a great feel for it, but he's off to a good start. It's a lot to absorb, but we're pleased with the start he's had and we have high expectations for him." - Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, speaking about Kiko Alonso in June
Offenses in the NFL are becoming more spread-oriented and diversified each season, and that has affected no position on the defensive side of the ball more than linebacker. To be an elite linebacker in today's pro football game, you must first be able to run, hit and cover well enough to play against any offensive set. "Three-down linebackers" are the name of the game these days.
For the past two seasons, Buffalo has employed one linebacker capable of filling that three-down role: Nick Barnett, a veteran that the team unceremoniously released back in February. Barnett played 999 snaps in 16 games last season, or nearly 92 percent of the defensive total; no other linebacker made it past 54 percent of snaps, and that was nickel specialist Bryan Scott. With Barnett out of the picture, the team had a massive hole to fill on the defensive side of the ball.
That hole was filled, the Bills believe, when they used the No. 46 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft on Oregon's Kiko Alonso.
The 6'3", 238-pound Alonso comes into the NFL with experience doing a lot of the things the Bills will ask him to do. In particular, his work in coverage will be an asset to the Bills, as will his high-4.6 to low-4.7 speed. He can blitz, he can play outside or inside (yes, even in Buffalo's defense), and he has the look of a linebacker dependable enough against the run that the team can reasonably expect to leave him on the field as often as possible as a rookie.
There is no delicate way to put this: Buffalo really needs an impact linebacker to emerge in Pettine's defense. They have not had a great linebacker in years, despite efforts to find that impact player. Their need at the position extends beyond simply being capable of playing three downs; if that were the case, the Bills could have simply kept Barnett. They need Alonso to be a playmaker - a guy that affects the passing game with big plays and the running game in the backfield. Alonso did that at Oregon. He'll be expected to do it at the NFL level right out of the gate, too.
Buffalo also had Alonso calling the defense during spring practices; it's unclear if that will continue into the regular season, but it's not unreasonable to believe that it will. When you talk about a rookie second-round pick being asked to emerge as a difference-maker in a three-down role while setting up a defense pre-snap as a rookie, you're talking about easily one of that team's five most important players. The Bills may struggle to find ways to put more on Alonso's plate in 2013, and he'll be a key cog in Pettine's efforts to turn around one of the NFL's worst defenses.