Preston Brown is ready and willing to step into the leadership void on the Buffalo Bills’ defense.
That’s a good thing, because he doesn’t have any other choice.
The trade of linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for LeSean McCoy has been a dominant storyline in the NFL this season, but a less-publicized move has also altered the Bills’ linebacker corps.
Veteran Brandon Spikes, the position group’s leader last season, wasn’t re-signed, meaning Brown has taken on the role of being the ‘mike’ linebacker. That’s the one who frequently communicates the defensive play to his teammates.
“It’s fun. I’m a 22-year-old guy telling these old guys what do,” Brown said after a recent minicamp presence. “That’s something I had to learn back in college. They taught me how to be more assertive and just have that presence about myself. I’m starting to get with the flow here.”
Brown, who made 14 starts in his strong rookie season of 2014, said Spikes “taught me the ropes of how to be a professional player.”
“That’s a big guy that I leaned on last year, learning basically everything,” Brown said.
The book hasn’t officially closed on Spikes returning to Buffalo since he remains unsigned – “If we can get him back, I would love to have him back,” Brown said – but for now, the second-year veteran from Louisville is embracing his new responsibilities.
“Nobody even notices he’s young,” said fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham. “We pretty much treat him as a veteran.”
That would seem to include new coach Rex Ryan.
“Oh, God, I didn’t realize he was 22. I’m a little nervous,” Ryan joked when asked about having faith in such a young player to handle the responsibility. “With Preston, I think he’s a coach’s kid, so he’s kind of been around the game awhile. He certainly has more of, I don’t know if mature is the right word, but he’s been around the game. I think it comes off pretty easy.”
Mature is also the word Bradham used to describe Brown.
“He called the plays last year,” Bradham said. “He’s going to continue to keep growing as a player.”
Brown started the second-most games of any third-round draft pick in the NFL in 2014, finishing the season with 109 tackles and an interception. He led the Bills in playing time on defense, participating in 94 percent (1,020 of 1,087) of the snaps.
After a well-deserved break – which he didn’t get last year because he was training for the draft – Brown is back for spring practices with a clear mind.
That’s needed because he’s learning a new system from the one defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz ran last season.
“It’s different, going to a 3-4 from a 4-3. It’s a lot different,” he said. “I did a little in college, so it’s just trying to get back into that two-gap mind-set, but we’ll get it right. … It’s just learning everything again.”
That comes with growing pains – Brown admitted there were “probably mistakes every play” during voluntary veteran minicamp last week – but it’s clear the Bills have a great deal of confidence that both Brown and Bradham will transition seamlessly. That’s a big part of the reason the front office felt comfortable moving Alonso.
“It shows they have a lot of confidence in us and that’s what we want,” Brown said. “With me and Nigel, we think we have a lot talent coming back. Just get some depth behind us and be ready to go out there every week.”
Bradham played 74 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps despite missing two games, and had a career year with 104 tackles, 2.5 sacks, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
He’ll be counted along with Brown to play an every-down role with the Bills.
“They proved it last year when those guys were out there for all those snaps,” Ryan said. “Certainly they have the tape to back it up. I’m impressed with them mentally. The things we’ve asked them to do – a lot of different things – and they just take to it. I like the way they’re communicating with each other and it just seems like it’s a group that you’d like to have together for a long time.”
Bradham played a minimal role in 2013 under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine – whose scheme is rooted in Ryan’s philosophy – so his goal in 2015 is to prove last season was about more than just a good scheme fit.
“I feel like I can play in any system,” he said. “The thing for me is just pretty much to show that. … That’s going to be my motivation for this season.”
The Bills wrapped up their 2015 class of undrafted free agents by announcing the signings of 13 players Monday.
Offensive tackle Jermaine Barton of Illinois State and defensive end Erik Williams of Bethune-Cookman joined 11 other players reported Sunday by The Buffalo News and various other outlets.
Barton, a 6-foot-7, 315-pounder, started all 39 career games for the Redbirds, including 15 at right tackle in 2014. He was a third-team All-American.
Williams, the son of 11-year NFL veteran Lee Williams, played in 35 games for Bethune-Cookman. The 6-3, 270-pounder made 56 tackles, including 28.5 for losses, 10.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and an interception in his college career.
Combined with the signing of defensive lineman Alex Carrington on Monday, the 13 undrafted free agents brings the Bills up to the roster maximum of 90 players. Should they want to sign anyone else in free agency, somebody must be released.
The rest of the Bills’ undrafted free agent class, which was detailed in Monday’s News, includes: South Florida wide receiver Andre Davis, Florida tight end Clay Burton, N.C. State offensive tackle Tyson Chandler, Western Kentucky cornerback Cam Thomas, Wake Forest cornerback Merrill Noel, Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley, Washington linebacker Andrew Hudson, Louisiana-Lafayette defensive tackle Justin Hamilton, Utah State defensive end B.J. Larsen, Texas defensive end Cedric Reed and Baylor punter Spencer Roth.