Buffalo Bills Training Camp Battles Part Five: Inside Linebacker

With the 2013 NFL draft over, we have a better vision of what the Buffalo Bills are looking to do on both offense and defense. However, while we have an idea of what the coaching staff has in place, there are several positions that are up for grabs. Over the next week or so, we’ll be previewing each and every position that will have a competition.

In the fifth installment, I will be reviewing the inside / middle linebacker position.

The linebacker position has underperformed for the past several seasons, but with the hire of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, that weakness could suddenly emerge into a strength.

When Pettine was hired, he told Buffalo Bills Broadcaster John Murphy,

“I’ve never been a guy to characterize what we’ve done as 3-4; 4-3; ’46.’ We are a multiple front, multiple coverage defense. And my foundation has always been, we are going to build what we do defensively based on the talent that we have. I’m not one to say, ‘this is my system, and you guys have to run it.’”

This emphasis on multiple defensive formations stresses versatility everywhere on the defense, but particularly the inside linebacker position.

In a 4-3 defensive front, middle linebackers, or the “MIKE” are typically responsible for defending the run; taking on lead blockers, making tackles and occasionally dropping into coverage, depending on the style of 4-3.

3-4 defenses feature two inside linebackers; the “MIKE” and the “TED”. Inside linebackers in 3-4 fronts must be solid against the run, due to the fact that there’s one less defensive lineman in front of them.

However, the versatility and athleticism of the linebackers on the roster will allow Pettine to be very creative with how he uses them.

“But Mike Pettine made this statement during the draft,” Nix told host John Murphy. “The days of the Mike linebacker and the strong safety have just about fallen by the wayside. Everything has moved over. You’ve taken the Mike now, and he’s moved over. You’ve moved Will to Mike. And now you walk up Bryan Scott as a nickel linebacker, and he’s now the Will. Those guys got to be able to run and cover.”

This transition into a new age of National Football League play is putting a premium on athleticism in the defense, which is why Pettine’s statements are completely true.

Now, on to the Players!

Note: Players listed in alphabetical order, not by depth chart

Nigel Bradham, 23, 6’2” 240

Nigel Bradham looks like the prime candidate for the “TED” role, or left inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense after a promising rookie campaign as the strongside linebacker last season. Bradham’s athleticism and strong build will allow him to not only defend the run, which was an underrated aspect of his game last year, but will also allow him to drop into coverage.

In 4-3 looks, Bradham would likely return back to the strongside outside linebacker position, where he would provide a similar role.

Kiko Alonso, 22 6’3” 238

With the Bills’ second round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the Bills selected Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso. Alonso fits the most of the new-age weakside linebacker: considered a bit “undersized”, but is extremely effective in both run support and pass coverage.

In 3-4 looks, Alonso will be likely be playing inside, where his relentless attitude and ability will add great value at the “MIKE” position.

Upon selecting Alonso, who recorded 144 tackles, 21 of which for a loss and intercepted six passes during his tenure with the Oregon Ducks, head coach Doug Marrone had this to say:

“I think he can play two (positions),” said Marrone. “He’s a big kid. You can see it on the clips. He can play man-to-man, he has good zone awareness, has a bunch of pass breakups. You see it from a coverage standpoint and then you also see him coming downhill making plays and he has a lot of tackles for losses. So he can make big plays from that linebacker position in both coverage and the running game.”

When Marrone said that Alonso has the ability to play two positions, I believe he’s referring to playing weakside outside linebacker when the defense is lined up with a 4-3 front, where his speed and zone awareness will assist the team’s short-to-intermediate pass coverage.

Arthur Moats, 25, 6’2” 250 (sleeper)

While Arthur Moats is currently listed as an outside linebacker on the official BuffaloBills.com roster, he fits the mold of the typical middle linebacker. Since being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL draft, the defensive coaching staff hasn’t been able to find a clearly defined role for Moats.

He’s played defensive end, strongside linebacker and a few snaps at inside linebacker. Moats’ combination of size and his ability to defend the run could help him earn a role in the middle of the Bills’ defense, considering the depth at outside linebacker.

Jerry Hughes is versatile enough to play Will or Mike, which is what attracted the Bills. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Jerry Hughes is versatile enough to play Will or Mike, which is what attracted the Bills. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Jerry Hughes, 24, 6’2” 254 (sleeper)

Like Moats, Hughes is primarily a pass rush specialist that is adequate in coverage.

Acquired in a straight up trade for Kelvin Sheppard with the Indianapolis Colts, Hughes’ versatility is what attracted former General Manager Buddy Nix.

Speaking of the Hughes acquisition, Nix told Buffalo News columnist Mark Gaughan,

“We want our linebackers to at least be able to play both outside spots. We’d like our middle backers to have the ability to play Will or Mike. So that really was enticing about Jerry”

Marcus Dowtin, 24, 6’3” 226

Acquired via waivers last month, Marcus Dowtin was a former student of Coach Pettine during his time on the Jets’ roster. Dowtin is extremely undersized for a typical inside linebacker, but again, versatility is the theme here; just take a look at what he had to say about his role(s) on the Jets.

“I was able to also play multiple positions like running back, receiver, safety, corner, roving linebacker, and blitz off the edge as well,” he said on the radio show. “I worked on my skills under Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine. I definitely enjoyed my time there and learned a lot.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue to be versatile and play for the Bills the same way I did for the Jets.”

Dowtin will most likely play a similar role to the one Pettine used Demario Davis, another undersized inside linebacker. His defensive role will likely be seeing limited snaps in obvious passing situations, while adding some value to the special teams’ coverage unit.

Brian Smith, 24, 6’3” 240

After a productive collegiate career at Notre Dame in which Brian Smith recorded 199 tackles, 5.5 sacks, intercepted four passes and forced three fumbles, he went undrafted in 2011. Bouncing from the Cleveland Browns to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bills signed Smith in December.

Smith played both outside linebacker in Notre Dame’s 3-4 defense while seeing time at both inside and middle linebacker as well.

Greg Lloyd, 24, 6’1” 247

Greg Lloyd was selected in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles after recording 179 tackles, 15 for a loss, and five sacks during his four years with the UConn Huskies. In November of last season, the Bills signed Lloyd to the practice squad, and promoted him to the active roster in December. However, he has yet to play one snap in the NFL. Lloyd will have to prove himself in order to earn a role with the 2013 Bills.