As the Buffalo Bills’ defense dissolved through December, Nigel Bradham didn’t speak out when he certainly could have.
Under Jim Schwartz, he was a playmaker. Under Rex Ryan, he was not.
Yet Bradham was one player who said the blame game needed to stop. He wanted more accountability inside the locker room. Meanwhile, each day at practice, he tested his high ankle sprain. The pain never subsided, Bradham never returned and now he’s off to the Philadelphia Eagles.
On Wednesday, the first day of NFL free agency, Bradham signed a two-year deal with the Eagles where he’ll reunite with Schwartz.
The former fourth-round pick had his best season with the coordinator. In 2014, at outside linebacker, Bradham totaled 104 tackles, 2 ½ sacks, six passes defensed and one interception in 14 games. In 2015, moved inside, he wasn’t as effective with 59 tackles, three passes defensed and no picks or sacks in 11 games.
The Bills never made a serious push to re-sign Bradham during or after the season, so now they must replace him.
Whether or not Buffalo's defense improves on last year's 19th-ranked unit could boil down to who Ryan plays in the middle. At the NFL scouting combine, he was also critical of his other starting inside linebacker, Preston Brown.
“If everything stays the same and we have all our players back, Preston has to be more vocal,” Ryan said. “There has to be more ownership that way. That’s not good enough to just know your job. You have to be the quarterback back there. And he can do it. He’s a smart enough kid. His dad’s a football coach. So he has to come out of his shell.
“I expect Preston to be able to make that step and he needs to.”
So with that public challenge, Brown is probably the one running Ryan's defense again. Who lines up next to him is a mystery.
One option for Buffalo is to keep the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manny Lawson inside. He took over the play-calling duties from Brown late in the season and the defense flustered both Dallas’ Kellen Moore (48.6 passer rating) and New York’s Ryan Fitzpatrick (42.7) in wins. It's no coincidence Ryan repeatedly praised Lawson’s intelligence, even citing his high Wonderlic score, through the season.
The Bills could make a push for veteran Demario Davis, released by the Jets earlier this offseason. Similar to Bradham under Schwartz, Davis had a career year under Ryan in 2014. The 6-foot-2, 239-pounder finished with 116 tackles and 3.5 sacks that season.
The problem here is that the Bills would have company. Eight teams have expressed interest in Davis, per USA Today.
Buffalo could cross their fingers that A.J. Tarpley, Tony Steward, Kevin Reddick or, if re-signed, Ty Powell takes a substantial step forward with another full offseason in this system.
And lastly the Bills could count on the draft. At No. 19 overall, the Bills might have a chance at landing Alabama’s rugged Reggie Ragland or Ohio State’s athletic Darron Lee. There’s inherent risk in waiting for late April to address the position and, considering how complicated Ryan’s scheme is, would the Bills want to count on a first-year player Day 1?
Free agency is only one day old.
Internally, end Mario Williams and Bradham might've been labeled misfits in Ryan's defense. But the Bills still need to replace them.