Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso tore his ACL during a recent workout in Oregon, and early reports indicate that he will miss the entirety of the 2014 season. To put it lightly - and in doing so, removing a realistic grasp of the gravity of the situation - it's unfortunate news for Alonso and, especially, the Bills.
This spring, the Bills focused on bolstering their linebacker depth in the wake of yet another coordinator change. Jim Schwartz is tweaking the Bills' defensive scheme enough so that players like Manny Lawson, who was listed at linebacker under previous coordinator Mike Pettine (and was the only other Bills linebacker to play a significant role for him), are now considered defensive ends. That is why the Bills moved quickly to secure Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers in free agency, and then spent a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Preston Brown.
The added attention on the position this offseason leaves the Bills with several options to replace Alonso this season, which is not a bad place to be in - especially compared to where they would have been last season. But none of these players offer the one thing that Alonso possesses, and which makes him a uniquely valuable asset in the modern NFL: the ability to play every down, which he did (all 1,145 of them) as a rookie.
Take a look at the play time percentages from the most relevant names on the Bills' linebacker depth chart today (excluding Brown, who is a rookie). Nobody even comes close to offering three-down value the way Alonso does.
|Player||2013 team||Snaps||Defense %|
Spikes is considered one of the league's best linebackers defending the run. He is, however, a major liability in coverage - and had Jerod Mayo not missed 10 games with a torn pectoral muscle last season, Spikes may have played even less. He remains a quality free agent signing as the starting middle linebacker, but he can't be asked to fill Alonso's role on passing downs.
GM Doug Whaley talked up Rivers as a potential every-down linebacker after the Bills gave the ex-Giant a two-year deal in March.
"He’s a four-down linebacker," Whaley said of Rivers. "He can play the first and second downs, the typical run downs. He can stay in on third down and cover, because he’s got athletic ability. And then he contributes on teams."
That might be a worthwhile assessment of Rivers' athletic talents - we are talking about a former Top 10 pick, after all - but he was also the fourth-most used linebacker for the Giants last season, watching the likes of Jon Beason, Spencer Paysinger, and Jacquian Williams take more snaps for Perry Fewell. Rivers is certainly a better three-down option than Spikes, but there is no reason to believe he'll be handed that role by Buffalo, or to be comfortable with the idea that he might wind up with it.
Bradham offers more athletic upside than any potential replacements for Alonso, particularly on the weak side, but he had a golden opportunity to snag a big role last season, and instead ended up as an also-ran (and occasional sub-package player) for the Bills. He saw more playing time late, but now he has to impress a new coordinator and a new position coach all over again, and the Bills might have their hearts set on someone else getting into the lineup first.
It's Brown, the rookie out of Louisville, that might be the name to watch from the angle of any one linebacker replacing what Alonso offers on passing downs. During spring practices, with Alonso sitting out of team work as he recovered from offseason hip surgery, it was Brown that was inserted into the first-team nickel defense next to the veteran Rivers. While praising Alonso early in June during OTAs, Schwartz brought up Brown, unprompted, and talked up the rookie.
"We added a really good young player in Preston Brown," Schwartz said on June 4. "He’s really done a nice job through (OTAs)."
It's interesting that Brown's breakthrough in June happened in that particular fashion, because coming into the league he was considered a two-down, run-stuffing linebacker - not quite in the mold of Spikes, because Brown is better in space, but certainly not the every-down player like Alonso. Brown is a slightly better and more versatile athlete than he's given credit for, and he will absolutely be afforded an opportunity to replace Alonso on the weak side in the base defense. Despite his spring fling with the nickel defense, however, it is premature to pencil him in as a three-down player as a rookie. His situation should be closely monitored when training camp starts in a little over two weeks.
Losing Alonso is a huge enough blow that, absent a player like Rivers or Brown proving himself capable enough to handle a lot more snaps than expected, the Bills may need to compensate in nickel and dime packages by shifting safeties down into linebacker roles. They have done that for years - with Bryan Scott first, and then more recently with the now more valuable Da'Norris Searcy - and may continue the trend further. Duke Williams has added value as a safety that can drop into the slot and cover. Slot corners like Corey Graham (who has the size to play safety) and Nickell Robey become more valuable, as well. The Bills have enough quality athletes to cover themselves in the passing game; Alonso's absence just makes the switch between the base defense and the coverage sub-packages far less smooth.
Searcy might be the biggest playing time beneficiary of the Alonso injury, and he could wind up being the closest approximation to that every-down player around which the team transitions between base and sub-package defenses. There was already a better than good chance that he'd earn the starting safety job next to Aaron Williams, and in that look, he'd be the box safety with Williams over the top. He'd stay on the field in nickel and dime looks, staying in the box, with a coverage safety - whether that's Duke Williams, or perhaps even Graham - playing deep or dropping into the slot to cover as needed. It's just my opinion, but with Alonso out of the lineup, Searcy becomes one of the most important players on Buffalo's defense, with Brown and Rivers potentially seeing a dramatic increase in anticipated playing time, as well.