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Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag, 5/16: Manny Lawson at DE

The Bills are switching to a new defensive scheme (again) this year. What will that mean for Manny Lawson and Kiko Alonso? That and more in this week's Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 NFL Draft has been in the books for nearly a week now, and we're moving past it quickly in our Buffalo Bills coverage. Today's trio of mailbag questions do feature one draft-related inquiry, but it pertains to next year's draft. The other two queries focus on the Bills' new 4-3 defense and two players specifically within it: Manny Lawson and Kiko Alonso.

This is the time of the football calendar year when topics start drying up, and we'd appreciate the kindness of throwing us a proverbial life raft in the form of a question submitted for future editions of the Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag. If you have a question you'd like to see discussed in this weekly feature, send us an email at, and we'll do our best to work it into the rotation this summer. I can't promise that we'll touch on all of them - though again, that might actually happen over the slow months - but we really appreciate the questions sent our way.

Onto this week's questions!

If I interpret the Wide 9 formation correctly, the ends lined up against the tight end's outside shoulder need to rush from outside, and is also responsible for the outside run. The inside run is mainly on the linebackers. I don't see why Manny Lawson could not play end in a 4-3, Wide 9 formation. He has the speed and agility to do so. Can you shed some light on this problem?

The "nine" refers to a defensive line technique, and yes, it's the technique wherein a player lines up on the outside shoulder of the tight end. No team, not even the ones that have coaches commonly associated with the Wide 9 (like Tennessee and Detroit under Jim Schwartz), use this technique on a permanent basis. That's because, when you get right down to it, pushing your ends out into a nine-technique only makes sense on obvious passing downs.

My worry with Lawson in that particular alignment is not his ability to play the run; he's a quality edge-setter. My concern is that he is not, by trade, a pass rusher. He offers speed off the edge, but does not possess an array of rush moves (or didn't in his non-rush role with the team last year) to consistently defeat blockers. As discussed in this post from late March, Lawson was basically a stand-up linebacker for the team last year, whether he was in the team's heavy nickel formation (lined up next to Alonso) or in a two-point stance on the line of scrimmage as the strong-side linebacker. He did not rush the passer much at all.

Right now, the Bills are so thin in the 4-3 base end department that I'm finding it difficult to believe that they won't be sticking with a 4-3 Under base defense - which Mike Pettine ran in Buffalo last year, and which would allow Lawson to continue to play on the edge, but in more of a non-rush role - and then incorporate their Wide 9 plans specifically into nickel and dime packages. They may mix in traditional 4-3 base defense looks, in which case Lawson would play end, and in a more traditional seven-technique, outside of the tackle's shoulder, he's a liability against the run, too. If the team uses Wide 9 looks on passing downs, as I suspect they will, he won't be on the field; Jerry Hughes, the team's best pure pass rusher, will be.

Thanks for the question, Bills-Qc!

How do you think having a big middle linebacker and the switch to the 4-3 is going to affect Kiko Alonso's playability and development this year?

Quite honestly, I don't believe that the scheme change, nor his role change, will alter what Alonso does by much. He'll still be the middle linebacker in the team's passing-down packages, because he remains the only truly viable three-down linebacker on the team, and that accounts for over half of the team's snaps anyway. It's really only in the base defense that things will change for him, and that's only slightly; he'll be moving to the weak side (outside) position there.

Having a guy like Brandon Spikes lining up next to him in the base defense will do more for Alonso than simply moving outside will. Even as the nominal middle linebacker last year, the Bills did what they could to free Alonso up and keep him away from blockers as much as they could. They just didn't have that physical, downhill player next to him to eat the blocks up the way Spikes will this year. Spikes really is a great run defenders; he keys quickly and explodes into blockers, and can routinely stack and shed to make tackles. That's the type of linebacker that the Bills have desperately needed for years, even if Spikes is severely limited against the pass.

No linebacker will ever have the luxury of playing a role where they're completely free of blockers, but Spikes' presence, more so than the scheme, will bring Alonso closer to that utopian landscape at linebacker. If all goes well, he will be more active, more consistently than he was as a rookie.

Thanks for the question, Pat!

Is there anything in place to prevent a team from always trading away their future pick for a pick in the current year? For example, next year what would stop Doug Whaley from acquiring a round one pick for a 2016 round one future pick... rinse, repeat each year?

As far as I'm aware, no, there is not. The NFL is not the most exotic league when it comes to trading - though that has changed very recently, with more intricate deals occurring on a more frequent basis - but enough crazy trades have happened that Whaley trading his 2016 first-round pick for a first-rounder next season would seem tame by comparison. For example: Mike Ditka trading a whole draft class for Ricky Williams, or, going back further, George Allen trading the majority of his draft picks for older, veteran players, are slightly crazier ideas than perpetually recycling next year's first-round pick.

Of course, it's not especially likely that Whaley will take that route, but then, I'd have said this time last week that it was not especially likely that Whaley would make four more trades in the next 48 hours, which he did. Whaley might feel more comfortable making this move, as he did this year, if the Bills make the playoffs (or even come close); he believes he'd have been picking in the 20s next spring, and if that actually comes to pass, it would not be surprising if he gave up his 20s pick in 2016 to get back into Round 1 next year. Assuming, of course, he still has a job under new ownership.

Thanks for the question, Da' Bills!