Back in mid-February, before the Buffalo Bills started cutting key veterans in advance of pending off-season moves, I wrote an article here about what new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine needed most to run his hybrid defense. Those needs were as follows:
- Play-making linebackers (plural)
- SAM linebacker/pass rushing hybrid
- Cover corners
Keep in mind that the idea wasn't to identify every need on defense; it was to identify the specific players that Pettine needed to run a hybrid defense, which can flex in and out of any scheme or technique on any given play. Let's take a look at what the Bills have accomplished through the major parts of the off-season to fill those needs:
Play-making linebackers (plural)
Pettine's defense uses two natural linebackers on the field pretty much constantly, and this was a huge need area entering the off-season. The Bills are banking on second-round pick Kiko Alonso being that play-making presence in the middle - he was certainly that at Oregon - and second-year pro Nigel Bradham looks to have the inside track at playing alongside the rookie.
Alonso and Bradham are not as big as Pettine's typical set of inside linebackers - David Harris and Bart Scott are hulks by comparison - but are decidedly better athletes. It'll be interesting to see if this duo can be solid enough to keep Pettine's defense ranked high in the run defense department. They're certainly athletic enough to do well in coverage. Buffalo is taking a risk on youth at this position, and there will undoubtedly be an adjustment period for the two youngsters.
Unless, of course, the Bills go out and find themselves a veteran that they can plug and play for a year.
SAM linebacker/pass rushing hybrid
The Bills went out and got two of these this off-season: Manny Lawson was signed as a free agent, and Jerry Hughes was acquired via trade with Indianapolis. Lawson has plenty of experience at linebacker, both in a 3-4 and a 4-3, and can safely be penciled in as a starter. Hughes was a college defensive end that showed signs of life last season as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and that is how he projects best into Buffalo's defense. Both players can stand up and cover or rush the passer, and both are excellent athletes. The Bills have solid depth at this position.
The only additions that the Bills made here this off-season came in the form of undrafted free agents - four of them, to be exact. None of the quartet of Nickell Robey, Vernon Kearney, Kip Edwards or Jumal Rolle seems likely to compete for serious playing time this season, meaning that the team is likely relying on Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin to perform as starters, with Ron Brooks and perhaps a darkhorse like Crezdon Butler pushing them (okay, just McKelvin) for those jobs. Gilmore has the chops to be a top-tier cover corner; the jury is very much out on him, however, and the rest are even more unproven.
If you're counting, that's seven new players at these three critical positions, and two are looking like strong candidates for the starting lineup. Buffalo also added a defensive lineman (Alan Branch) and made over their safety position a bit this off-season, moving Aaron Williams to that positional group and then adding Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks in the middle rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Do you believe that Buffalo did enough to get better this off-season, Bills fans? And if not, are you okay with that because of the amount of change happening on offense?