A month ago, we could safely surmise two things about the Buffalo Bills' linebacker situation entering the 2014 season: Kiko Alonso was probably going to play every snap again if he was up to it, and Brandon Spikes was going to play a ton as a key cog in the team's efforts to improve against the run. The latter remains true today, but Alonso is out for the season with an ACL injury, and now the Bills' outside linebacker situation is wide open.
Spikes is now the face of the linebacker group, as its best and most notorious player. But he is also a situational player, one that won't be on the field for a healthy chunk of snaps due to coverage limitations. Which means that among a group of new faces and little-used incumbents, the Bills will be looking for at least one major contributor in 2014, and that player will need to be able to play on pass downs.
Passing down options
NFL defenses spend more time in nickel and dime packages than they do in their base defenses these days, so it's necessary to start a conversation about the linebacker position with passing down options. The Bills have some, but to say that none of them are as reliable or as accomplished as Alonso would be a severe understatement. Which is precisely why the team will need to entertain the idea of playing a safety, such as Da'Norris Searcy, in a linebacker's role in those packages.
In spring practices, while Alonso was missing full-team work in his recovery from offseason labrum surgery (this was prior to his ACL tear), the two linebackers that lined up in the Bills' first-team nickel defense were free agent signing Keith Rivers and rookie third-round pick Preston Brown. It's fair to assume that will continue once training camp starts, which makes those two names highly important ones entering the new season.
After the Bills signed Rivers to a two-year deal in March, GM Doug Whaley referred to him as a "four-down linebacker," citing his athleticism as a factor in his ability to play on passing downs. Brown, a Louisville product, was seen as a two-down run stuffer, almost in the mold of Spikes, coming into the 2014 NFL Draft, and it caught a few by surprise when he broke in with the first-team defense in the passing down capacity. Coaches have praised Brown's abilities early and often, and he hasn't even begun his first NFL training camp yet.
Pay close attention to whether or not Nigel Bradham, the third-year pro out of Florida State, can steal any nickel and dime reps from Rivers and Brown as camp progresses. That will be a good indicator not just of the team's satisfaction with using either Rivers or Brown on key downs when the season starts, but how well Bradham, the team's most naturally athletic linebacker, is progressing on that front. For now, however, the safest assumption to make is that Rivers is first in line to play the most at linebacker, with Brown directly on his heels if he continues to impress coaches this summer.
The base defense
Forget about strong side and weak side. If defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is cognizant of the fact that he needs interchangeable safeties, then you can bet that he's aware that his outside linebackers need to be able to produce against either alignment strength, as well. It's too easy for offenses to dictate to defenses in terms of strong side and weak side - it can be achieved by simply putting a player in motion - and as such, the Bills need to be flexible, lest they start flipping their linebackers all over the alignment.
It's also been written a lot recently that the Schwartz defense "funnels" plays to the weak side. Well... yeah. That would be the point of lining your best player up on the weak side, wouldn't it? The weak-side linebacker is less likely to have to deal with blockers, and therefore free more often to make plays. That's built into every defensive system, ever. And it's why offenses have become so good at changing the strength of the alignment pre-snap - to better block those top linebackers, and to put defenders at a skill set disadvantage.
Buffalo's focus in determining their starting outside linebackers, then, should not have to emphasize whether or not a player is better suited to play the strong side or the weak side. Ideally, they find the two best players that can do both, especially since there really isn't a stand-out player among the group. As it happens, all three of Rivers, Brown, and Bradham have diverse enough skill sets to play on either side of the alignment.
Brown is the better run defense prospect of the three. This is where he made his mark in college, and it's why he was drafted as early as he was. He's a sound tackler and has the ability to take on blockers, overcoming some athletic limitations with good awareness and smarts. Rivers, a former Top 10 pick, has been a journeyman due mostly to injuries, but has enough talent to play either side, even if he's not as physical as Brown is. Bradham has flashed the ability to take on blocks and has excellent straight-line speed, but hasn't had enough opportunities in two years to develop any sort of consistency.
It's not out of the question that a guy like Ty Powell gets involved in this race, either, because there's enough that's unproven about each of the other three candidates that anything is possible. But it seems clear entering training camp that Rivers and Brown are the early favorites to land starting jobs, with Bradham looked at as the high-upside wild card that, if given opportunities with the first-team defense, could make a strong case for a major role himself.