Bryan Scott was listed as a starter just one time last season in 16 games played for the Buffalo Bills.
But make no mistake – Scott was one of the Bills’ most important defenders. The veteran played in nearly 55 percent of the snaps. That’s more than the since-departed Kelvin Sheppard, who started 15 games, but played in only 46 percent.
So when the Bills released Scott over the weekend, they opened up a big hole on their defense.
“I think we’re going to look at different players in that,” role coach Doug Marrone said. “I had Bryan before in New Orleans, and I have all the respect in the world for him. He’s a great pro. … If you’re playing against the run you may go in there with a linebacker. If you’re looking to play the pass, you may go in there with a defensive back. I think there’s different options to fill that role.”
The candidates to replace Scott as the nickel linebacker start with the player he was backing up in training camp, second-year linebacker Nigel Bradham.
Bradham made 11 starts as a rookie, but played only 36 percent of the team’s snaps. When the Bills went to their nickel (five defensive backs) package, Bradham and Sheppard would come off the field in favor of Scott and another cornerback.
“I feel like I can do a great job with it,” Bradham said of becoming a three-down linebacker. “I’ve been working at it during the offseason. I did a lot of it in college. We were fortunate enough last year to have Bryan Scott. … I learned a lot from him as far as technique and being sound in my game and just trying to be a complete linebacker.”
Bradham said Scott’s release was hard news for the team.
“You lose somebody like that, it kind of hurts the locker room,” he said, “but at the same time, you can follow in his footsteps. He left a mark of playing hard and being a great person on and off the field, and that’s what we have to do this year.”
Marrone’s response when asked whether Bradham would serve as a “three-down” linebacker, however, made it seem like that was only one of many options the team will consider.
“He could if we probably wanted to,” the coach said. “I don’t want to mislead you, we’ll be multiple packages.”
With the New England Patriots coming to town on Sunday, the Bills’ new defensive scheme will face the equivalent of a Regents exam on the first day of school. New England has averaged 40 points per game against the Bills in the past three seasons, going 5-1 over that span.
“If you go in there with just one type of philosophy, if you don’t have the best matchups you can, you could be exposed out there,” Marrone said. “I think you have to be multiple and keep mixing it up. You’re correct, it is a tough matchup for teams and it’s been a tough matchup for everybody, not just our team.”
Amherst native Rob Gronkowski has particularly enjoyed torturing his hometown team in his three seasons with New England. “Gronk” has 30 catches for 449 yards and nine touchdowns in six games against the Bills.
Buffalo may catch a break, however, as it’s unlikely Gronkowski will be in the lineup Sunday after offseason surgeries on a broken forearm and his back. He returned to practice for the first time Sunday.
“This is his first opportunity to be in pads,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick told New England reporters, “so, yeah, he’s definitely moving forward.
Belichick classified Gronkowski as “day to day.”
“I don’t know any other way to do it,” he said. “We don’t know how he’s going to be feeling in two days. Or any other player. It’s not about him, it’s about any player that’s coming back from injury. That’s how we do it. Nobody has a crystal ball.”
If Gronkowski is unable to play, the Patriots will rely on tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui, undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld and Matthew Mulligan, whom the team is expected to sign as a free agent.
Sudfeld, at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, has impressed throughout training camp and has a chance to put up big numbers with Gronkowski out of the lineup.
“He’s big and can really run,” Bills safety Aaron Williams said of Sudfeld. “He can catch the ball real well.”
Williams said the key for the Bills will be to be physical.
“You can’t let them push you around,” he said. “You’ve got to hold your ground. The coaches have really emphasized this week getting our hands on them.”
Without Scott, the Bills have only three inside linebackers on the roster in Kiko Alonso, Bradham and reserve Arthur Moats.
With six safeties, it’s more likely that replacing Scott’s role will fall to one of them.
“I feel like I’m confident in myself that if they need me to play that role, I can play it,” said safety Da’Norris Searcy, who at 216 pounds is the heaviest of Buffalo’s defensive backs.
Searcy said he played a similar role to the one Scott filled while in college, and would be comfortable in the position.
“I’ve been there on and off,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s permanent yet.”
One potential look for the Bills could be Searcy, Williams and Jairus Byrd on the field together – but that rests largely on the health of Byrd, who is dealing with a plantar fasciitis injury.
Williams said that all of the safeties are trained to play multiple positions.
“We knew coming in that we were going to have a lot of DBs, just because of our packages and our defensive scheme,” he said. … There’s not one specific title on each player.”