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Free agent focus: A reunion with Nigel Bradham could help Bills at linebacker

This is the seventh in a series examining potential free agents at positions where the Buffalo Bills have a need.

Buffalo sports fans have a soft spot for reunions.

Sentimentality usually spells trouble, but in the case of linebacker Nigel Bradham, there is a reason Bills fans might be longing for his return.

Bradham played a key role on the Philadelphia Eagles’ championship defense. The 28-year-old is the type of athletic, three-down linebacker every team in the NFL craves – which makes the decision not to re-sign him after the 2015 season all the more puzzling.

The men responsible for that decision – former General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan – are no longer in the NFL. Bradham, meanwhile, blossomed in Philadelphia, finishing with 88 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery during the Eagles’ championship run. In the Super Bowl win over the Patriots, he had seven tackles.

So why will he hit the open market next week?

The Eagles are currently $7.73 million over the league’s 2018 salary cap, and simply don’t have the money to re-sign Bradham.

“We’d like to bring them all back,” Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine.  "At the same time, we have to figure out whether that fits into our overall scheme and our system. … We’d love to bring Nigel back, but obviously everything is going to depend on where that is” money-wise.

Bradham has learned that free agency can be a confusing time for players. While he’d like to stay in Philadelphia, his experience with the Bills has taught him to be prepared for anything.

“I would hope,” Bradham told philly.com during the season about the Eagles wanting to retain him. “But I heard that before. When I was in Buffalo I was in the same situation. They were thinking about re-signing me. They put out articles and all kinds of stuff.”

Perhaps Bills General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott make good on what Whaley and Ryan failed to deliver. The Bills’ front seven figures to undergo a significant rebuild this offseason, particularly if last year’s starting middle linebacker, Preston Brown, departs as a free agent.

Bradham took over as Philadelphia’s defensive playcaller after the team lost Jordan Hicks to a season-ending Achilles injury.

“He's done a really good job handling all that communication, and it's been fairly seamless,” current Eagles and former Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told philly.com after the NFC Championship Game. “I think that it's really a credit to him is how he's able to do that. He's been able to play a couple different positions.”

That positional versatility is a trait valued highly by McDermott. Bradham ranks 23rd on NFL.com’s list of the top 101 pending free agents, while another former Bills linebacker holds the top spot at the position.

Washington’s Zach Brown ranks 14th on that list, but given that the Bills let him walk out the door last offseason, a reunion there seems much less likely. Brown finished with 127 total tackles in just 13 games, and would have challenged Preston Brown for the NFL lead of 144 if he played in all 16. Zach Brown is ranked 17th on NFL.com’s list, the top spot among linebackers.

One spot behind Brown at No. 24 is Tennessee’s Avery Williamson. The 26-year-old Williamson has played in 63 of 64 possible games, while starting 59. The 25-year-old linebacker has recorded at least 90 tackles in each of the past three seasons and has 11.5 sacks over the course of his career. A fifth-round draft pick in 2014, Williamson has been durable, appearing in 63 of 64 career games with 59 starts. He has made at least 90 tackles in each of the past three seasons and has 11.5 sacks. Williamson played in a 3-4 defense with the Titans, so it would be a bit of a projection signing him to play in a 4-3 scheme.

If the Bills are looking for more experience at the position, Tahir Whitehead is a six-year veteran who has spent his entire career with Detroit to this point. Over the past two seasons, the 28-year-old has 242 tackles, eight passes defensed and four fumble recoveries.

The player with the biggest name recognition set to become available is Oakland’s NaVorro Bowman. Once one of the game’s top players, he comes with a lengthy injury history, including a torn ACL in 2016. He rebounded to play in 15 games last year (10 with the Raiders, five with the 49ers), finishing with 127 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one interception. Bowman played nearly 1,000 snaps between his two teams, although it remains to be seen whether he can keep up as a three-down player or would be better served moving to a two-down role.

Other linebackers who cracked NFL.com’s list include Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens (No. 49), the New York Jets’ Demario Davis (No. 59) and Denver’s Todd Davis (No. 73). Here’s a look at each of them:

• Hitchens, who turns 26 this offseason, finished out his rookie contract with the Cowboys. His strength is against the run – he finished 22nd in run defense based on grading by analytics website Pro Football Focus in 2017 – but needs to improve against the pass to be a three-down player.

• Demario Davis bounced back after a pair of lackluster seasons to lead the Jets with 135 tackles, starting all 16 games.

• Todd Davis won the Broncos’ 2017 Ed Block Courage Award for his commitment to the team. He has risen from an undrafted free agent to starter and is just 25. He has made 179 tackles over the past two seasons.

In addition to Preston Brown, Ramon Humber is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next week for the Bills. Humber started 2017 as a starter, but eventually lost his job to rookie Matt Milano. Humber's most likely role moving forward is as a defensive reserve and key contributor on special teams.

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