The 2014 season will be the fourth straight in which the Buffalo Bills have had a brand new defensive coordinator running his own defense. That amount of scheme turnover, flip-flopping between 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses, has left its mark on the Bills' defensive personnel - and that is especially true at linebacker, where the Bills spent the free agency period beginning yet another makeover.
Bills GM Doug Whaley, speaking at last Friday's pre-draft luncheon, acknowledged that even with those notable signings, the position is still a work in progress.
"Linebacker, we’re going to probably get some depth," Whaley said a week ago. "We have a lot of guys that will give us depth, but they’re still a little unknown because they haven’t been out and shown us what they can do on the field."
Talent on hand
The only sure thing the Bills have at linebacker is second-year pro Kiko Alonso, who needed only a handful of games as a rookie to establish himself as one of the best young linebackers in the NFL. He played every snap on defense in his first pro season, finishing the year with 159 tackles, four interceptions, two sacks and a forced fumble. The team will be moving him to the weak side in 2014 to accentuate his speed, range and instincts, and to protect his body from the minor injuries that slowed his roll toward the end of last season.
Replacing Alonso in the middle is former New England starter Brandon Spikes, the controversial personality that also happens to be one of the league's best run defenders at the position. It's a calculated gamble for the Bills to make - he signed a reasonable one-year deal - and Spikes will help a Bills run defense that still isn't as stout as it should be. Spikes is, however, extremely limited in coverage, and will not be on the field in obvious passing situations.
The strong-side linebacker position in the 4-3 defense that Jim Schwartz will run is an area of transition. Manny Lawson manned the position in 2013, but did so within a 4-3 Under base defense that asked him to play a highly similar role to that of a 3-4 outside linebacker. Lawson can play Sam linebacker in a 4-3 - he did it with Cincinnati - but if he can beat out free agent signee Keith Rivers for the gig, his role will likely be significantly diminished from what it was a year ago. The team sounds more interested in Rivers holding down that spot, too.
Third-year pro Nigel Bradham, the only other returning linebacker who played any significant snaps last season, profiles as an athletic reserve with special teams ability. The Bills also keep bringing up Ty Powell in conversations about the position; he, too, is a reserve-type with special teams ability.
Need assessment: Speed
Alonso and Spikes form a solid base for this position, but it would be nice if the team could find a second three-down presence to pair with Alonso and eliminate the need for patchwork substitutions in sub-packages. The team has tried to sell Rivers as a three-down presence, but that seems far-fetched given his career trajectory.
The team could also use more speed at linebacker. Spikes is not the fastest player in the world, which is the biggest contributor to his struggles in coverage. Rivers is not quite the top-level athlete he was when he was a Top 10 pick in 2008, Lawson's game isn't about speed, and even Alonso is more quick than fast. Bradham is a viable depth option because of his excellent athleticism, but the Bills need more of that.
To that end, two of the Bills' three pre-draft visitors at linebacker are so ultra-athletic that they'll likely end up as first-round picks: C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Ryan Shazier of Ohio State. Shazier is a new-wave type of linebacker, slighter in frame than most (6'1", 237 pounds) but with unbelievable speed (an unofficial 4.39-second 40-yard dash) and range for the position. Mosley is not quite as explosive athletically, but he's close, and exactly the type of impact, three-down linebacker that NFL teams covet these days.
Preston Brown of Louisville also made a visit; he fits more into the Spikes profile of a two-down linebacker, and looks like he'll end up being a mid-round pick.
Finally, let's not forget about Khalil Mack of Buffalo. The do-everything linebacker prospect was not part of the Bills' pre-draft visitor list, but he didn't have to be; NFL teams don't need to count local prospects on that list. Mack's pro day was held at the fieldhouse on the One Bills Drive campus, and the team's top scout, Doug Majeski, has seen a lot of him. In fact, this was Majeski's quote about Mack, a virtually certain Top 5 pick, from last Friday's pre-draft presser: "I hope we have the opportunity to draft him."
Mack, Mosley and Shazier are the cream of the crop, but Mack stands alone - and if the Bills are interested, they'll have to trade way up in the draft, as Mack is one of the most coveted players in this year's class. He has been linked to Houston at No. 1 overall, and it's very difficult to envision Mack sliding past Jacksonville at No. 3 overall, given the defense Gus Bradley runs down there. Mosley would be a solid value pick at No. 9 overall, while if Shazier is the target, the team would likely want to trade down a few slots first.
Anthony Barr of UCLA would be another solid value pick, but he's much more pass rusher than true linebacker, and probably doesn't fit what the Bills are looking for aside from providing speed off the edge. Kyle Van Noy of BYU is another versatile player that has a lot of linebacker experience, and that could land him in the Round 1 range. Beyond those immediate contributors, the Bills will likely be able to wait until the middle or later rounds to find athletic depth options.
There has been a lot of chatter in the past month - and it has, for obvious reasons, picked up in intensity recently - that the Bills are interested in trading up in the draft, perhaps even as high as No. 1 overall. The two most-referenced potential targets behind that desire are defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Can you think of a good reason why the local product Mack, a three-down linebacker that can also put a hand in the dirt and rush the passer from defensive end, isn't being mentioned nearly as frequently by analysts as a potential trade-up target for the Bills?