Thus far, the Buffalo Bills have aggressively addressed the linebacker spot, adding to the group to help give the defense its immediate makeover. It started with signing linebacker Keith Rivers from the New York Giants on Wednesday, and on Friday, John Wawrow of Associated Press reported the Bills signed middle linebacker Brandon Spikes from the New England Patriots:
ESPN's Adam Schefter added that the one-year deal is worth $3.25 million.
It makes sense that they are targeting new linebackers. They are transitioning from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's 3-4 to former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz's 4-3.
The Bills will need a different look at linebacker if they are going to execute the new scheme. The prototypes are far different for each position and each scheme, and they are broken down by Pro Football Focus here. For years, the Bills have bounced back and forth from one scheme to another, so it's time they build their defense in a singular image.
Now that the dust has settled on the Bills' free-agent moves at linebacker, let's take a look at the new-look linebacking corps.
Kiko Alonso, Weak-side Linebacker
The Spikes signing comes in conjunction with general manager Doug Whaley announcing at a press conference, via BuffaloBills.com, that Kiko Alonso would move to the weak side in Schwartz's 4-3 scheme.
"We're going to move Alonso outside," Whaley said. "We think, with his athletic ability and his speed and instincts, why limit him by having him take on those big guards? Let's cover him up and let him run and hit."
By "cover him up," Whaley actually means to cover him with a tight end. Lining him up over the tight end gives him the most opportunities to use his athleticism, whether in coverage or crashing the line as a rusher if the tight end stays in to block
Similar to what he has shown early in his pro career, Alonso was extremely active and constantly seen around the ball. One of Alonso's better qualities was his overall range. He was a sideline-to-sideline run defender and covered a lot of ground in underneath zone coverage. Alonso also flashed the ability to hold up in man coverage and displayed above-average playmaking instincts in this area, which has translated well during the first month of his career in coverage.
That sounds like the quintessential description of a weak-side linebacker. Alonso's athleticism should help him excel in his new role.
The Bills saw his athleticism manifest itself on the field time and time again in 2013 as a middle linebacker. He was a candidate for 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year after finishing the season with 159 tackles (87 solo), two sacks, four interceptions, five passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
Brandon Spikes, Middle Linebacker
Spikes is never going to win any awards for his athleticism, but he brings a passion for the game and an intensity on the field that are hard traits to replicate.
He played middle linebacker for the Patriots in their 4-3 defense over the past three seasons, and in their 3-4 as a rookie.
Spikes is at his best when he gets to come downhill—whether it's attacking the line of scrimmage to bring pressure on passing downs, shooting through gaps to get into the backfield or simply charging hard to take on the lead blocker at the hole.
The one area he struggles most is in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he allowed completions on 61 of the 80 throws into his coverage over the past two years. There will be times where Spikes gets caught on the field, and teams may try to attack him by throwing in his direction and underneath the belly of his zone coverage, forcing him to break on the ball, where he struggles.
For what the Bills were missing, though, Spikes is a perfect fit at middle linebacker.
Keith Rivers, Strong-side Linebacker
Rivers was once the No. 9 overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2008 draft, but it's been a long time since then. He was sent to the New York Giants for a late-round pick in 2012. Rivers was a versatile linebacker for the Giants last year, playing on both the weak side and strong side of their 4-3 defense. With Alonso moving to the weak side, though, that leaves the strong side as the only feasible option for Rivers—unless he's been relegated to backup duty.
In reality, that may not be too far-fetched. Jordan Raanan of NJ.com points out that the writing was on the wall for Rivers' time in New York because, "Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell never seemed willing to use him as more than a two-down linebacker, and he was often an afterthought in the game plan."
Whaley, however, thinks Rivers will be on the field often.
"He's a four down linebacker," said Whaley of Rivers. "He can play the first and second downs, the typical run downs. He can stay in on third down and cover because he's got athletic ability and then he contributes on teams. So that's an incredible value pick for us with a guy who can play four downs. He's going to compete for that starting spot."
Even if he is not asked to play heavily on passing downs, the Bills have one more linebacker who could play a very key role in the defense, in rotational duty with Rivers.
Manny Lawson, Rotational Outside/'Rush' Linebacker
The most likely situation in this group has Lawson rotating with Rivers as a strong-side linebacker.
If Rivers is a two-down linebacker as a run-thumper, Lawson would be the perfect player to rotate with him. My vision for Lawson in the Bills defense is as a "Von Miller lite," where he can be used mainly for his effectiveness getting after the quarterback and crashing the line against the run but can also cover at times if need be.
Whaley even indicates that the Bills could ask Lawson to put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer off the edge as a defensive end. Lawson is a bit light to handle that role on a consistent basis at 6'5" and 240 pounds, so it will be interesting to see how he responds if and when teams try to run the ball straight at him.
Maybe Lawson will add some weight if he's going to be more of a defensive end and he can be part of a rotation with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, but the Bills could also designate him a movable chess piece in their defense, with a different role depending on the matchup.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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