It wasn't that long ago that the linebacker position was a real problem area for the Buffalo Bills. After the free agent departure of perennial Pro Bowl linebacker London Fletcher prior to the 2007 season, the Bills struggled with Paul Posluszny as the top linebacker for four years, then used veteran Nick Barnett as a stopgap for two years before finally stumbling across Kiko Alonso in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
They'd also, by then, added Nigel Bradham as an athletic developmental prospect in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and before Alonso was lost for the 2014 season with a knee injury, they'd picked Preston Brown in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Bradham blossomed into a bona fide starter in Alonso's absence last season, and Brown improved dramatically throughout the course of his rookie season, to the point that he became the team's top linebacker in terms of playing time. Add Alonso, a potentially elite coverage linebacker, back into the mix, and the Bills suddenly find themselves with a young and highly talented group of linebackers - and it's entirely possible that they won't have enough snaps to go around for all three.
- Age: 24 (25 on August 14)
- 2015 cap #: $1.17M
- 2014 snaps: 0 (ACL injury)
It's going to be very interesting to see what Alonso looks like, returned to full health and back in the defensive system that had him on the cusp of stardom as a rookie. It's also going to be interesting to see whether or not he can be a more well-rounded and consistent player with quality play next to him in the lineup. Alonso burst onto the scene as a rookie and stayed there thanks to elite coverage ability for a player at his position; if they get that player back, and he happens to be a bit better against the run as well, then he'll become a household name on the national scene.
- Age: 22 (23 on October 27)
- 2015 cap #: $702K
- 2014 snaps: 1,020 (93.8 percent of total)
Buffalo asked an awful lot of its third-round pick last season, and for a while, it didn't work out so well; Brown went through some growing pains and rough patches of play early in the season, pressed into action by Alonso's injury and Bradham's suspension. By the end of the season, however, Brown had emerged as the Bills' top linebacker, filling Alonso's every-down role capably, and surprisingly well from a pass-defense angle. He can improve in consistency and against the run, but Brown has a chance to establish himself as a fixture in Buffalo's defense for years to come.
- Age: 25 (26 on September 4)
- 2015 cap #: roughly $1.66 million (proven performance escalator)
- 2014 snaps: 806 (74.1 percent of total)
Where Alonso provides the coverage chops and Brown adds in smarts and instincts, Bradham is the Bills' most explosive athlete at linebacker. He's a capable blitzer and fast enough to run with backs out of the backfield, and in 2014 blossomed into an assignment-sound player against both the pass and the run, establishing himself as a quality pro starter at his position. Bradham overcame some off-field issues along the way to get to where he is today, and while it's more likely than not that all three of Alonso, Brown, and Bradham will see extensive playing time next season, the brewing battle between Brown and Bradham for a starting job looks like one of the fiercer camp battles we'll see this summer.
- Age: 27 (28 on September 3)
- 2015 cap #: unrestricted free agent
- 2014 snaps: 504 (46.4 percent of total)
Brought in last offseason to give the Bills a two-down run stuffer in the outgoing Jim Schwartz defensive scheme, Spikes delivered what was expected of him: rock-solid run defense, while staying off the field for more than half of the team's snaps thanks to his athletic limitations in coverage. Bills GM Doug Whaley revealed last week that Spikes is interested in a larger role defensively, and with the Bills unable to offer more than the situational role he played last season (if that), it's sounding like the free agent will be leaving the organization after one season.
Ty Powell is well-regarded by the Bills and a core special teams player, even though his role on the defense has been minimal to the point of not existing. Larry Dean was also a core specialist in 2014, and could be re-signed (he's an unrestricted free agent) based on that fact alone. Randell Johnson, a lanky and athletic 2014 seventh-round pick, could be viewed as either an outside or inside linebacker in Ryan's system. The team also has practice squad linebacker Jimmy Gaines back on a reserve/future deal. Stevenson Sylvester, a veteran who spent last year on IR, is a pending free agent, and is not likely to be retained.
There is one position on the entire roster at which the Bills really don't need to make any personnel additions this offseason, and that's at linebacker. They already have three young (and cheap!) starting-caliber players to compete for two jobs in the Rex Ryan defense, and if they re-sign Dean to pair with Powell, they'll have two athletically versatile reserves with special teams ability behind them, plus one or two intriguing projects. The Bills have done a nice job of building this position back up over the last few years, and their reward might be the ability to safely ignore it for an offseason and focus on other areas of the team.