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By Joe Buscaglia
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Bills Draft Outlook: Linebacker

For as much as the Buffalo Bills defense improved under 2013 defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, one problem the team couldn’t solve was how to consistently limit what opponents would do against them in the ground game. Throughout the season, some running backs that had limited success in the NFL found running lanes against the Bills.

Stopping the run became a priority for the Bills on defense, and when they switched to the 4-3 that’s exactly how they approached the offseason. Will it factor into their draft plans in hopes to finally solve the woes against the run? Let's examine: 

What they have
Starters: Kiko Alonso (WLB), Brandon Spikes (MLB), Keith Rivers (SLB)
Reserves: Nigel Bradham, Ty Powell, Nathan Williams

What they need
- The Bills went out in the offseason and made changes to all three of their linebacker spots. First, they switched back to the 4-3 defense which means a true, three-down running mate for Kiko Alonso was needed.

To keep Alonso away from as many punishing engagements with blockers as possible, the Bills announced that the second-year player would be moving to the weakside, free to roam the field. Without any suitable starters for both the middle and strongside, Buffalo signed two free agents that are penciled into their starting lineup.

A noted run defender from his time in New England, the Bills roped in middle linebacker Brandon Spikes on a one-year contract. With some off-the-field concerns and in the way that his tenure with the Patriots ended, the Bills elected to go with the one-year “prove it” type of contract.

For the strongside, the Bills signed former first round selection Keith Rivers to a two-year contract. GM Doug Whaley said at the time of Rivers’ signing that the team believes he can be a three-down player for the team. His contract yields a rather low cap number, and doesn’t preclude them from bringing in another player to compete for the starting job.

Past the starters, the Bills have two players with some experience and playing time under their belts. After a promising rookie season, Nigel Bradham failed to carve out a normal spot on the defense in 2013 and could face some competition to make the roster this year. Ty Powell at this point is the backup middle linebacker, but is a former college defensive end making the switch to the second line of the 4-3 defense.

Without any longterm commitments to a linebacker outside of Kiko Alonso, the case can certainly be made for a linebacker being a selection in the first three rounds. The Bills tiered the players at linebacker that they brought in for a pre-draft visit to get a little bit more comfortable with some players that could be available in each round.

At the very least, additional depth is necessary in the event of an injury or two, with the hopes that the player they draft could transition into a starter down the line.

How will they do it?
- It really all comes down to how strongly the Bills feel about the prospects of Rivers starting this season. If they were to select a linebacker in the first round, that player has to be a starter from day one. The only player conceivably worth taking in the first round would be Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, who the Bills had in for a visit and who is also said to be able to play all three linebacker spots in a 4-3. However, selecting a player like Mosley would likely only be done if all of their preferred options for ninth overall were selected ahead of them. Unless someone like Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier falls to 41st overall, it’s more likely that you see the Bills address linebacker later in the draft for depth and special teams purposes. Linebacker is one of the easiest positions to convert from the college to the pro game, so if things go awry with either Rivers or Spikes, the Bills can address it in 2015.

Players connected to the Bills
C.J. Mosley, Alabama (Pre-Draft Visit)
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (Pre-Draft Visit)
Preston Brown, Louisville (Pre-Draft Visit)

Previous ‘Bills Draft Outlook’ Editions
Wide Receiver
Defensive End
Running Back
Defensive Tackle
Tight End
Offensive Tackle

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

**Photo courtesy of the AP

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People : Back SafetyBills Draft OutlookBrandon SpikesC.J. MosleyDoug WhaleyKeith RiversKiko AlonsoMike PettineNathan WilliamsNigel BradhamPreston BrownTight End