In one breath, Nigel Bradham says all the things you’d expect to hear from a pending unrestricted free agent.
Of course, the Bills’ linebacker would like to be back in Buffalo. Yes, he thinks the defense can improve greatly in 2016.
“I really hope I'm back,” Bradham said Monday, as the Bills cleaned out their lockers following an 8-8 season. “This is where I was drafted. The opportunity for me to be in this league came from here. This is where it started, so I'd like to finish here.”
In another breath, however, when the pack of TV cameras has migrated elsewhere in the locker room, uncertainty creeps in.
“I mean, they haven't said too much, man,” he said about whether the Bills have presented a new contract offer. “I had my meetings and stuff, so …”
Bradham’s thought lingers there for a second. It’s almost as if the realization strikes him in that moment.
“I haven't thought about it, because I've been here,” he said. “Obviously I've been thinking they're going to sign me, you know? But so far it hasn't happened, so I can't really be just sitting around. I've just got to keep all the opportunities open.”
A year ago, it seemed unfathomable that it would have gotten to this point. Bradham made big plays by the bucketful in 2014, finishing with career highs in tackles (104), sacks (2.5), passes defensed (six), interceptions (one) and forced fumbles (two).
His combination of instincts, size and speed made him one of the most prized commodities in the NFL – a linebacker who can stay on the field in all situations.
But as is true of most of the players on the Bills’ defense in 2015, Bradham’s numbers took a nosedive. He played in only 11 games because of a high-ankle sprain, finishing with 59 tackles, one sack and three passes defensed. Projected over a full 16 games, and none of those totals match what Bradham managed to do in 2014.
“We do a lot of different things in this scheme,” Bradham said when asked if he could point to the biggest reason for the change in production. “It's not your traditional linebacker. So it's not really difficult, it's just you're doing … you've got a lot of different jobs at the same time.”
The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked Bradham 79th out of 94 qualified linebackers in 2015, with an overall grade of minus -15.9, down from a grade of 3.6 in 2014. Bradham had five games with a grade of minus -2.3 or worse and just two at 1.0 or better. He registered just nine total pressures on 87 pass-rush attempts, according to PFF, just five of which came after Week One.
He was also second on the team with nine missed tackles and ranked 25th out of 33 qualified outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme with a 5.9 run-stop percentage. Bradham had 14 “stops” – which are defined as preventing a successful offensive play, depending on down and the distance needed for a first down – in 237 snaps. Last year, he had 27 such stops in 326 snaps.
“We were nowhere near where we wanted to be coming into the season – where we thought we would be,” Bradham said about the defense, which finished 19th in total yards allowed a season after finishing fourth. “We thought we would finish as one of the top defenses, and we were nowhere near that. So it was one of those things where, a lot of the fault is ours.”
If Bradham does return in 2016, he sees better things ahead in the second year of playing coach Rex Ryan’s scheme.
“We've got the talent,” he said. “We obviously have got great potential. It's been shown. We've pretty much just got to live off that and just continue to grind and get better.”
Bradham’s best year came in the 4-3 defense run by Jim Schwartz. He doesn’t think that he needs to find a similar scheme to be successful, though.
“I feel like I've proven that I can play in any scheme throughout my career here,” he said.
The Bills may have every desire to bring Bradham back – Ryan several times this season marveled at his toughness – but may simply be unable to. According to National Football League Players Association records, the team has more than $154 million committed to the 2016 salary cap, a number that may exceed the available space when the NFL establishes what each team’s cap space for the coming season will be.
There is little doubt some team will look at Bradham’s 2014 production, his age (26), and his physical attributes (6-foot-2, 241 pounds) and deem him worthy of a lucrative contract.
Like all free agents, Bradham said that’s not the only thing that motivates him.
“Just by being in this league, you’re going to make money,” he said. “So I think the main thing is, just win. Be able to go to the playoffs, get to the Super Bowl.
“I think it's going to be an interesting thing, as far as for me. It's just something to look forward to, you know? Seeing where you're going to be. Hopefully I'm still here, but if not, it's just one of those opportunities where you've got a great chance to go out there and make a name for yourself.”