As recently as April, Bills faithful thought this could be a year where the team begins to turn the tide, tearing down the reputation of “bottom dweller” or “underachiever” that has, fair or not, been placed on the organization.
The team traded multiple picks, including two first-rounders, to move up to the fourth pick in the draft to select Sammy Watkins, a game-breaking receiver who will be a home run threat for years to come.
The Bills boasted the 10th-best defense in the league last season per NFL.com, and despite the loss of Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd to the Saints, there was still a fair amount of optimism for the unit.
A good amount of that optimism faded when Kiko Alonso suffered a torn ACL during a personal offseason workout at Oregon, his alma mater, on July 1.
The runner-up for the 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Alonso racked up a team-high 159 total tackles (87 solo), four interceptions (also a team-high) and two sacks on one of the best units in the NFL.
The Bills were set for a new look on defense in 2014, with a majority of personnel groupings centered around Alonso.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wanted to freshen things up, switching to a base 4-3 defense.
The defensive line, a unit that accumulated 57 sacks last year (second highest in the NFL) remains the same, except Mario Williams will play with his hand in the dirt instead of being utilized as a rush linebacker.
The linebacking unit was set to be led by Alonso (Will or weakside), former Patriot Brandon Spikes (Mike or middle) and former Giant Keith Rivers (Sam or strong-side), all of which would be on the field on first and second downs to shut down the opposing rushing attack.
The secondary is set to have a new look, too.
Spikes and Rivers have always struggled in pass coverage, so with the acquisition of former Ravens nickelback Corey Graham, it has created the option for the Bills to run a six-defensive-back look (or dime package) on third downs and in obvious passing situations.
Alonso was set to be a huge piece of this sub-package, staying on the field in dime situations as the lone linebacker.
While he is effective in stopping the run, displaying patience and a nose for the ball that allows him to close in on ball-carriers in a hurry, Alonso is the best coverage inside linebacker the league has to offer.
He has the ability to drop into coverage and take away the middle of the field in zone coverage because of his athleticism, but Alonso was valuable because he also has the ability to completely blanket running backs and tight ends in man coverage.
On the below play, Alonso is physical with the Tampa Bay halfback, pressing him at the line of scrimmage and sticking with him to take away Mike Glennon's checkdown option.
Despite the absence of Alonzo and all he brings to the team, this defense can still work at an effective rate.
Bradham is a similar player to Alonso as he does a good job anticipating where the ball-carrier is going, and he breaks quickly to make the play.
The third-year linebacker out of Florida State excels while dropping into coverage, although he doesn't have the same athletic gifts as Alonso. He is extremely physical and does a good job reading the quarterback's eyes while blanketing receivers in his zone.
Buffalo can still run the dime coverage package with Bradham utilized as the lone linebacker on the field. It might take him a second to adjust considering he was never the only coverage linebacker on the field, often splitting the space between the hashes with Alonso like in the play below.
Luckily for both Bradham and the Bills, there is plenty time between training camp and the preseason for Bradham to adjust to securing a majority of the middle of the field by himself (assuming Buffalo decides to run the defense similarly to how it was going to before Alonso's injury.)
He doesn’t have the Pro Bowl potential Alonso does, but Bradham is going to be a solid replacement for a Bills team looking to make some noise in the AFC East.