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Bills GM Doug Whaley deserves credit for free-agent gems

Column as I see ’em, Week Four:

• I’ve given Doug Whaley plenty of grief in recent years. But if I’m going to rip the general manager when he overestimates and overpays players, it’s only fair to toss some praise his way for finding productive performers on the cheap.

The Bills’ defense appeared to be in deep trouble in the offseason when injuries and salary cap issues depleted the roster. The linebacking corps was in particular distress after the departure of Nigel Bradham in free agency, the season-ending knee injury to rookie Reggie Ragland and the unexpected release of veteran Manny Lawson.

But Whaley found a couple of gems on the free-agent market, and the D has been better for it. Zach Brown, who signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal to be Ragland’s backup, has been a revelation, leading the NFL in tackles through four games. The fifth-year inside ’backer is making Ragland’s injury seem like a stroke of good fortune.

Brown had one of the best games by a Bills linebacker in years at the Pats, with 18 tackles (13 solo), a sack, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. If that’s not a player of the week, I don’t know what is.

Lorenzo Alexander, a career backup, was signed mainly to help on special teams, where he made the Pro Bowl in 2012. Alexander, 33, had been used sparingly on defense in his career. But after a strong camp, he earned a starting outside linebacker spot.

On Sunday, he became the first Bill to participate in a sack in the first four games of a season since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. Alexander, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent, had nine sacks in his first 10 years in the league.

Alexander has a tidy salary cap hit of $600,000. So does Leger Douzable, a backup defensive tackle who has been a vital reserve in Marcell Dareus’s absence with 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. Douzable, who has been on six teams in his eight-year NFL career, played for Rex Ryan’s Jets in 2013-14 and eventually joined him here.

Douzable said he’s not surprised by the way these journeymen have mixed into Ryan’s defense, which has been terrific in three of the four games this season.

“No, not at all,” Douzable said. “The veterans they’ve brought in are guys that are smart, tough and can play multiple positions. We’ve always had confidence. We felt the second game we played really (against the Jets) wasn’t us as a defense.

“I think a lot of it is being in the second year in the system and guys are more comfortable with each other. Last year, you were in the system for the first time. You have to be able to think in Rex’s system. There are a lot of interchangeable moving parts. Guys are jelling and we’re starting to play better as a defense.”

Despite the meltdown against the Jets, the Bills’ defense is sixth in the NFL in points allowed per game and eighth in yards per rush at 3.6. It’s a reflection of some surprisingly solid play by guys who were acquired by Whaley as depth players and been more valuable than anyone could have imagined.

• Julio Jones had exactly 300 yards receiving on 12 catches in Atlanta’s 48-33 win over the Panthers. Jones now leads the NFL in receiving yards with 488. He’s picking up from a year ago, when he had 533 yards in his last four games. He’s on pace to threaten Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,964 yards in receptions, set in 2012.

Jones became the sixth player to gain 300 yards receiving in a game. The Rams’ Flipper Anderson has the record of 336, set in 1989 against the Saints. The rest of the top five: Calvin Johnson had 329 for the Lions against the Cowboys in 2013; Stephone Paige of the Chiefs had 309 against the Chargers in 1985; Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams had 303 yards against the Lions in 1945, and the Lions’ Cloyce Box had 302 vs. the Colts in 1950.

Love that name. Box became a successful businessman in Texas after finishing his NFL career. According to Wikipedia, his Cloyce Box Ranch was the original ranch for the miniseries that evolved into the famous TV series, “Dallas.”

• So who owns the Bills’ record for receiving yards in a game? Lee Evans had 265 yards in a 24-21 win at the Texans on Nov. 19, 2006. Evans caught two 83-yard touchdown bombs from J.P. Losman in the game’s first nine minutes and finished with 11 catches. Losman threw for 340 yards, a career high, that day.

It was the only 200-yard game of Evans’ career and exactly 100 yards better than his next best single game, a 165-yard effort in a win over the Bengals here in 2007. That was the last time Losman ever threw for 200 yards in a Bills win. Ah, memories.

• Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott took over the NFL rushing lead Sunday with 138 yards in Dallas’s comeback win over the Niners. Elliott had 140 yards the previous week against the Bears and is bringing a smile to the face of all those fantasy owners who took the leap and drafted him high in their drafts.

Things will get a little tougher in the next two weeks against the Bengals and Packers. Green Bay leads the league in rushing defense. But that Cowboys offensive line is as good as it gets, so Elliott could lead the league if he stays healthy.

Last week, I mentioned that none of the top five rushers of 2015 were in the top 15 this year. None of the current top five finished in the top 15 a year ago. Heading into Monday night, the top five were 1. Elliott (412 yards); 2. Isiah Crowell (386), LeGarrette Blount (352), Lamar Miller (351) and DeMarco Murray (340).

• Here’s a little fact that might interest only me: The first four teams on the Bills’ schedule all lost at home Sunday. Baltimore fell at home to Oakland, the Jets lost to visiting Seattle, Arizona was shocked by the Rams, and of course, the Patriots suffered their first-ever shutout at Gillette Stadium against the Bills.

Home field hasn’t been much of an advantage through the first four weeks of the season. The home teams were 33-29 heading into Monday night, with the NFC under .500 at 14-16. The NFC East was 5-0 on the road before the Giants’ big Monday nighter at Minnesota.

Actually, the league is on the same pace of a year ago, when home teams went 136-120 on the season, a .531 winning percentage. So far this year, it’s .532 percent.

• If you’re looking for an out-of-town columnist to loathe, this is from the Boston’s Christopher Gasper after the Bills’ win in Foxborough: “Rarely has a Patriots loss, even one as distasteful as the 16-0 drubbing by the Bills, felt so insignificant.”

• I don’t imagine the NFL honchos will love Zach Brown’s quote about seeing the Pats’ Jacoby Brissett scramble up the middle toward the Buffalo goal in the second quarter: “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to try to decapitate him.’ He’s a quarterback.”

• OK, I know they play different positions and tackle stats can be misleading, but I can’t resist: Zach Brown had 18 tackles, 13 solo, against the Pats. Mario Williams had 17 tackles, 13 solo, all last season for the Bills.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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