This is the second in a four-part series previewing Bills training camp. Today’s installment is on the defense.
There are expected, welcome roster battles at every training camp.
Those are the ones where two young players compete for a starting job, ideally pushing each other to new heights and helping to build depth along the way.
Then there are emergency competitions – like the kind the Buffalo Bills will hold at weak-side linebacker beginning Sunday at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
That’s because Kiko Alonso tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at the start of this month, opening a huge hole in a Bills defense that will have its fourth different coordinator in as many years.
Alonso was one of the Bills’ best playmakers last season, taking every snap as a rookie at middle linebacker. That ability to play all three downs also makes him one of the toughest players to replace. Alonso’s speed and range made him ideally suited to his new role on the weak side.
Finding his replacement – and getting comfortable with the new scheme installed by Jim Schwartz – will be the two biggest priorities for a defense that finished 20th in points allowed in 2013.
“We have talented players on all three levels of our defense,” Schwartz said. “The challenge of any coach is to try to find out what your players do the best and put them in good positions.
“There are some things we’ll do a littler bit different, there are some things we’ll do almost the same, but how we’ll play will really develop as we go through training camp and as we go through preseason games.”
Third-round draft pick Preston Brown impressed the defensive coaching staff in spring practices and will likely get the first crack at replacing Alonso. He will have to show he’s got the coverage skills required of the position.
Third-year veteran Nigel Bradham also figures to get a shot at the job. At 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, he’s got the athleticism to play the position, and a fresh start with a new coordinator could be just the boost his career needs.
Better defending against the run becomes a bigger challenge without Alonso, but Schwartz recognizes it’s an area in which the team must improve. The Bills ranked 28th in the NFL last year against the run, allowing nearly 130 yards per game.
“Our ability to stop the run will set up other things,” Schwartz said. “When it’s all said and done, though, the hallmark of any defense is not how many rush yards you give up, how many pass yards you give up, it’s your ability to limit points.”
Here are some other roster battles to watch on the defensive side of the ball:
• Starting strong safety: Jairus Byrd’s departure created a big hole in the Bills’ defensive backfield. Aaron Williams will shift over to free safety, leaving Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams to compete for the job at strong safety – although it’s worth noting Schwartz says the roles are interchangeable.
How the Bills use Searcy will be interesting to watch in camp. His versatility allows the Bills to play him at nickel linebacker in an effort to replace Alonso if they choose, meaning Duke Williams could have a role in sub packages even if he doesn’t win the starting job.
• Reserve defensive tackle: The Bills have to face the very real possibility of a suspension for Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus after his two arrests in the offseason. The re-signing of veteran Alan Branch just before the end of last season looks like a good move. Stefan Charles showed flashes in brief playing time last season and will look to show he’s worthy of more time this year.
• Reserve edge rusher: Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are proven starters at defensive end who combined for 23 sacks last season. Depth behind them, however, is a concern, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. Third defensive end Manny Lawson is a dependable veteran making the switch from 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s known more for defending against the run, and will have to show some pass-rush skill in camp. He had four sacks last year, and has never had more than 6.5 in his eight NFL seasons.
Jarius Wynn has the inside track on the fourth defensive end spot. At 285 pounds, he’s built more to stop the run. He’ll be pushed for the job by Ikponmwosa Igbinosun.
Jacquies Smith got a lot of practice reps in the spring with Mario Williams being limited and Lawson skipping the voluntary workouts. With five preseason games, he’ll get plenty of chances to show he should stick as a situational edge rusher, as will seventh-round draft choice Randell Johnson.
• Fifth cornerback: The top four of Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Corey Graham and Nickell Robey is solid, leaving fourth-round pick Ross Cockrell and third-year veteran Ron Brooks to compete. Given Cockrell’s draft status, it’s likely up to Brooks to prove to the Bills they should keep six cornerbacks. Special teams could be one way to do that, but Brooks had just five tackles in that phase last season with ample playing time.
Tuesday, Part Three: Special teams.