On the rare occasion when someone talked about the Buffalo Bills last year, it was usually about the struggles of rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel and how he wasn’t worthy of the first-round pick Buffalo spent on him. Very few people talked about the Bills’ defense.
Over the past few years, the Bills have slowly but steadily built of the best defenses in the NFL. The big free-agent signing of Mario Williams grabbed a lot of headlines, but the majority of the Bills’ defense has been built through the draft. Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Kiko Alonso, Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Jairus Byrd are (or were) all players who have been bred in Buffalo and found at least some NFL success. Byrd has since left for the New Orleans Saints and Dareus’ future with the Bills is up for debate, but heading into 2014, the Bills had reason to believe that their defense was capable of carrying them to the playoffs.
Those playoff hopes took a significant hit when the team discovered that Alonso had torn his ACL, which will cause him to miss the entirety of the upcoming season. It’s hard to overstate how much Alonso means to Buffalo’s defense and to the team as a whole. Beyond his substantial statistical contributions, Alonso brought something extra, that intangible aura of charisma that gives a defense its identity. With Alonso gone, the Bills are not only without their leading tackler, they have also lost the face of their defense.
No one player will be able to replace Alonso. Keith Rivers and Nigel Bradham are two names who have been associated with taking Alonso’s place, but the Bills’ best bet is their third-round pick in this year’s draft, Preston Brown. Before we get carried away with placing unattainable expectations on Brown, it must be said that he is not in Alonso’s class as a player. At least not yet. Brown came into rookie minicamp with far less fanfare than Buffalo’s top pick, Sammy Watkins, yet it was arguably Brown who had the best minicamp on the team. Even before Alonso got hurt, it was speculated that Brown would be seeing a lot of reps with the first-team defense. Under the current circumstances, that now seems all but certain.
No one is expecting Brown to have the type of rookie season that Alonso did, nor should they be. But there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to hold his own. Buffalo brought in veteran Brandon Spikes this offseason as a run-stuffing presence. With Brown a strong candidate to start this year, Spikes will also be asked to show the rookie how things are done at this level.
Considering the circumstances, Brown is actually walking into a pretty good situation. He will be surrounded by a lot of talented players. He will not be responsible for quarterbacking the defense as a rookie like Alonso had to. He just needs to show that he belongs. If Brown lives up to the promise he has shown thus far, Buffalo’s already good defense will be that much better.