When the Buffalo Bills announced that Mike Pettine would become the team’s new defensive coordinator, uncertainty arose regarding whether the franchise had the proper personnel to operate his defensive scheme.
During Pettine’s tenure with the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets, his defenses operated primarily out of a 3-4 defensive front. The Bills switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2010 before deciding to return back to the four-man front in 2012.
In order to effectively run a 3-4 defense, a team must have quality linebackers. The linebacker position is a unit that the Bills have struggled to find consistent starters at for the past several years, though not for lack of trying. It is again a priority that the team is expected to address this offseason.
When describing the type of linebackers the Bills are hoping to acquire, general manager Buddy Nix explained to BuffaloBills.com’s John Murphy:
“When you’re looking at linebackers, I think...you want a guy who can run and cover and can match up against a slot or a tight end. See if that guy's got enough mobility in space to cover.”
When I spoke with Bleacher Report’s New York Jets Featured Columnist Ryan Alfieri, he explained that Pettine utilized his inside linebackers primarily for run support and his outside linebackers to rush the passer. He told me that, while Pettine inherited outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, they were rarely asked to drop into coverage.
According to ProFootballFocus’ signature statistics (subscription required), the Jets blitzed their outside linebackers on 731 out of a possible 983 passing snaps during the 2012 season, roughly 74.3 percent of the time. Additionally, the Jets blitzed an inside linebacker on 242 of a possible 941 passing snaps, a 25.7 percent rate.
In short, the Bills want linebackers who can consistently pressure the quarterback and defend the run.
Where Do The Bills’ Current Linebackers Fit?
The Bills opted to release veteran linebacker Nick Barnett on February 11 in what appeared to be a salary cap-related decision.
Barnett, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, was signed prior to the 2011 season, as he seemed to fit the bill for the team’s 3-4 defense. He was a productive inside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers and Bills before transitioning to the weakside outside linebacker position in the 4-3 defensive front this past season.
Hybrid safety/outside linebacker Bryan Scott was a valuable asset to the Bills’ nickel defense, playing primarily in coverage situations. Scott, a 31-year old veteran who has been with the team for six seasons, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March. His role in the “hybrid” defense that Pettine described is unknown and it isn’t clear whether he will be retained.
Inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard was selected with the No. 68 overall pick in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. He was seen as a solid fit for the 3-4 defense the team was in the process of establishing and projects well to Pettine’s scheme. In his first two years with the Bills, Sheppard has played in all 32 games, recording 150 tackles and two sacks.
He’s not a true every-down linebacker, but according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Sheppard ranked as the 12th best inside linebacker in pass coverage. However, he ranked 46th out of 53 players at the position in run support.
Strongside linebacker Nigel Bradham was a fourth-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft and was obtained to play in the 4-3 defensive front. Bradham started 11 games as a rookie, but played just 402 defensive snaps and recorded 57 total tackles. At 6’2”, 242 pounds, he projects well to the strongside inside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense. Bradham was a solid contributor in run support, as ProFootballFocus’ 14th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in Run Stop Percentage, with 24 stops. Bradham is the most athletic of the linebackers currently on the roster, and probably has the highest ceiling for growth as a player.
Arthur Moats is a former sixth-round pick from the 2010 NFL draft and has grown to be a fan favorite, despite rarely seeing the field. He played just 129 defensive snaps in 2012,and the previous coaching staff couldn’t seem to find a full-time position for him. The former James Madison defensive end was used at inside linebacker, outside linebacker and defensive end. Moats is best stopping the run and offers little in terms of coverage ability.
Which Free Agents Might Interest The Bills?
While the Bills appear to have two decent starters at the inside linebacker positions, there are major voids at both outside spots. Mike Pettine’s defenses put an emphasis on pass rush ability from both outside linebacker positions, and there are several players who could attract the team in free agency. He described a defense that would operate out of multiple fronts, so players should be able to rush from a three-point stance in the 4-3 and stand up to rush the passer in a 3-4.
Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals
Michael Johnson is an athletic 25-year old defensive end who recorded 11.5 sacks and 52 tackles with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012. Standing at 6’7”, 260 pounds, Johnson is a physical freak that has been brought along slowly with the Bengals’ defense. Johnson was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end in terms of Pass Rush Productivity, as he generated 55 pressures.
Paul Kruger, Baltimore Ravens
Paul Kruger developed into somewhat of a household name during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, as the 6’4” 270 pound linebacker recorded 42 tackles and nine sacks during the season to go with 14 tackles and 4.5 sacks in the postseason, including 2 in the Super Bowl. He played 1,068 defensive snaps and excelled as a pass rusher opposite Terrell Suggs. While Kruger was at his best rushing the passer, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker against the run.
Which Draft Targets Could Interest The Bills?
The Bills have quite a few positions they need to address this offseason, but the 2013 NFL draft is loaded with talented players who specialize in rushing the passer. With the No. 8 overall pick, the Bills could acquire a defensive cornerstone for the future.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Despite being diagnosed with spinal stenosis that caused him to transfer from Southern California to Georgia during his freshman year, Jarvis Jones was a huge playmaker for the Bulldogs for the past two seasons. As a two-year starter at outside linebacker, Jones recorded 168 tackles, 45.5 tackles for a loss, 28.0 sacks, and forced nine fumbles. At 6’3” 241 pounds, Jones has been compared to the Denver Broncos’ phenomenal pass rusher, Von Miller. While Jones will be subject to medical questions at the NFL Scouting Combine, he’s generally the consensus top pass rusher in this year’s draft class.
Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
Oregon’s Dion Jordan is one of the most intriguing players in the 2013 NFL draft. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, Jordan has freakish athletic ability and was used in a variety of ways with the Ducks’ defense. Jordan played defensive end, outside linebacker, and even covered slot receivers as a three-year starter in the Pac-12. He recorded 121 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and forced four fumbles during his tenure at Oregon. Jordan is a scheme-versatile player that coaches and scouts will love to get their hands on.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, Louisiana State
Barkevious Mingo is the 2013 draft class’ true boom-or-bust player. His ceiling and potential is higher than nearly every player in the draft, but his production hasn’t matched his athleticism during his time on the LSU defense. Mingo has been compared to San Francisco 49ers’ pass rusher Aldon Smith. In his three years with the Tigers, Mingo has racked up 119 tackles, 29 of which came for a loss, 15 sacks and forced four fumbles.
The Bills surely won’t be able to address all of their needs in one offseason, especially with an expected scheme change on defense, but they can go a step in the right direction with a successful offseason. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has proven that he fields top-tier defenses that are based off pressuring the quarterback. While the Bills have a strong defensive line consisting of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus, there is uncertainty at the linebacker position and this needs to be addressed.