The Buffalo Bills lost a major contributor on the field at the end of the 2019 season, as veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander announced his retirement after a tremendous 13-year NFL career. For an undrafted free agent who entered the league as a defensive tackle, subsequently playing offensive line and tight end before finding a home as a linebacker, that number 13 is truly amazing.
More important than Alexander’s contributions on the field were his contributions in the locker room and in the community. The Bills lost a leader of men in ‘Zo, and while they will replace his production, replacing his leadership will be the more difficult part.
If the Bills are going to add a free agent to replace Alexander, they will have some familiar names to choose from in doing it. Of the 100-plus linebackers available via free agency this year, there are more than a few who fit the Bills. Given Alexander’s ability to shift to different positions within defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s plan, it’s also difficult to predict what the Bills will do. Are they looking for a “WILL” or a “SAM” linebacker? Do they want someone with special teams experience? Do they want a seasoned veteran or an up-and-coming young player?
We’ll know the answers to these questions soon enough, but until then, all we can do is speculate. Here are a few players I’d like the Bills to contact as soon as possible.
Jamie Collins (New England Patriots)
Collins has been one of the linchpins of the New England Patriots multi-faceted defensive front, a player equally adept in pass coverage as he is at rushing the passer. A huge part of the reason why New England can disguise its fronts so effortlessly (aside from the brilliance of head coach Bill Belichick) is Collins’s versatility. The 6’3”, 255-lb linebacker set career highs this year in interceptions (3), sacks (7), pass breakups (7), and quarterback hits (10), while notching his second-consecutive season with at least ten tackles for loss. Spotrac projects that he’ll command around $9 million annually, so the 30-year old may be a bit out of Buffalo’s expected price range. However, if the team wanted to add a strong, versatile veteran presence who also can handle special teams (he played on 44% of New England’s special teams snaps last year), they’ll be hard-pressed to find a player better than Collins.
Kyle Van Noy (New England Patriots)
When the best defense in football has multiple players set to hit free agency, it’s a given that teams should look to acquire those players. When acquiring those players could have the duel effect of improving your team and weakening a divisional rival? That’s what I call a win-win. Van Noy is more pass rusher than pass defender—on his 814 defensive snaps last season with the Patriots, he was targeted on only nine pass attempts—but he is a very effective edge rusher. the 28-year old had 15 quarterback hits, 6.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and three pass breakups last year—all career-highs. While he only played ten special teams snaps this year, he did play on 28% of New England’s snaps in that phase of the game in 2018. Van Noy fits the Alexander profile more closely than Collins, as he is best served rushing the passer as a “move” defender. This could be a great signing—albeit an expensive one—to improve the front-seven, as Pro Football Focus projects that Van Noy will fetch $10.5 million annually this offseason.
Nigel Bradham (Philadelphia Eagles)
Old friend alert! Bradham was drafted in the fourth round by Buffalo in 2012. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, where he remained until his release this past February. Bradham has played multiple spots in multiple defenses—he was a WILL with the Bills in 2014, he was an inside linebacker the following year when the team switched to a 3-4 under Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman, and he was a SAM with Philadelphia—so he clearly has the versatility Buffalo covets at the position. Would he be willing to return to the place where his career started? Would the Bills be interested? Bradham is a steady, big-hitter who could still be highly effective in a role as the “third linebacker” in terms of overall snaps behind Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds.
A.J. Klein (New Orleans Saints)
A former Carolina Panthers player must appear in every free-agent article, so I’m glad to hit my quota by including Klein, who played in Charlotte from 2013-2016. Under former Panthers defensive coordinator and current Bills head coach Sean McDermott, Klein was a sub-package player who saw most of his action on special teams. He never played more than 33% of the defensive snaps while in Carolina, and he never played fewer than 48% of the special teams snaps there, either. When he left via free agency in 2016, he signed with the New Orleans Saints, where he played more on defense than he did on special teams. In terms of overall production, there isn’t much to digest—Klein topped out at 70 tackles in 2018, and set a career high in sacks last year with 2.5—but he is a savvy veteran with experience in the defense. Depending on how his market develops, he could be a player to watch, as he has the ability to come in and take over Alexander’s special teams snaps while also serving as a solid contributor in the “base” defense (I put base in quotation marks because the team really plays in a nickel package more often than it does a straight 4-3 look, but I digress).
Alec Ogletree (New York Giants)
Veteran? Check. Versatile? Check. Proven track record of success? Check. Solid in pass coverage? Check. There really isn’t anything that Ogletree can’t do, and after he was released by the New York Giants, the Bills don’t have to wait until the official opening of free agency on March 18 to sign him if they wish. Ogletree has 12 career interceptions, and although he allowed a high passer rating while in coverage last year (teams were 44-of-53 for 373 yards and three touchdowns while targeting him last year, a rating of 107), he only allowed a passer rating of 74.5 the year before. One potential drawback is Ogletree’s lack of experience on special teams, but I think the Bills could overcome that via the young depth they have. Ogletree would give Buffalo three legitimate three-down linebackers, but the cost is likely far too high.
Kevin Pierre-Louis (Chicago Bears)
A wild-card could be if the Bills decide that they like the young depth they have, so they instead try to add a player who could contribute on special teams while competing for a larger role than he had with his previous team. A player like Pierre-Louis, who has played for four teams in six years, could fit that mold. With the Chicago Bears last season, Pierre-Louis set career highs in games played (14) and starts (3) while also playing on 277 special teams snaps. At 28 years old, the former fourth-round draft choice of the Seattle Seahawks has made a nice career for himself as a special teams player, but he hasn’t done much on defense to show himself worthy of an expanded role. Does that sound familiar? If the team wants to take a chance on a special teams player who hasn’t had a chance to make a name for himself to replace Alexander, that might be the most fitting choice of all.
Which free agent linebacker should the Bills sign to replace Lorenzo Alexander?
This poll is closed
Kyle Van Noy
Other; specify in comments
None; add through the draft and/or rely on young depth