Training camp hasn’t even started yet for the Buffalo Bills, and already they have adversity to deal with at one of their starting positions, and a key one at that. A big push this offseason was to upgrade the linebacking core around Kiko Alonso, and they felt they found a pair of starters and some depth to go along with it.
What they didn’t account for was the best player on that unit going down with a torn ACL in the beginning of July, paving the way for more questions to be asked about how the linebacker group will shake out.
How does that linebacking room look now, just under two weeks ahead of camp? Here’s a look:
The Injured (1) Kiko Alonso
- The biggest blow to the 2014 season to date, the weakside linebacker and standout defender Alonso will likely miss the whole year because of a torn ACL. It’s a devastating loss to a defense that hoped to be much improved, and the second-year player was among the best the unit had to offer in a more natural position on the weakside. At least the Bills will have the entirety of training camp to iron out how to deal with it, rather than figuring it out on the fly in a random week during the season.
The Starters (2) Brandon Spikes, Keith Rivers
- Since there are no indications of what will become of the weakside position, only two starters are guaranteed at this point. Both Spikes and Rivers were brought in this offseason to play differing roles. Spikes will be the two-down, run defending middle linebacker and likely will be taken out in obvious passing situations. Rivers is described by GM Doug Whaley as a potential “four-down” player, so it’s fair to expect Rivers will be on the field as much as he can handle. Before Alonso’s injury Rivers was slated to play the strongside linebacker role, but the new information could cause them to rethink it and give him a look on the weakside, considering he has experience there in past stops.
The Depth (1) Preston Brown
- The third-round pick is the safest among the now top two on the linebacking depth chart. He created some buzz for himself following the offseason workouts and might even have put himself in the position to take the third starting job now that Alonso is injured. Whether it’s at the strongside or weakside linebacker position, Brown has previous experience in college with both. If it’s weakside, his main competition will be third-year player Nigel Bradham.
The Bubble (3) Nigel Bradham, Ty Powell, Randell Johnson
- Bradham leads the list as the player that will likely be safe, but until he carves out that niche for himself he remains on the bubble. The difference is that his bubble has a much harder exterior than most. If the Bills elect to keep Rivers at strongside, Bradham and Brown will battle for the starting job at weakside linebacker. Ty Powell is the backup middle linebacker at the moment, and someone that the Bills consistently brought up during the pre-draft process as a player they were excited about. Johnson was the team’s seventh-round pick with an extreme amount of athleticism, but a lack of polish. Expect him to get looks at both strongside linebacker and defensive end during training camp, which will likely pave the way for him getting to the practice squad.
The Longshots (3) Jimmy Gaines, Darrin Kitchens, Nathan Williams
- The hometown Gaines will likely be the third-string strongside linebacker backing up both Rivers and Johnson. Kitchens is an undersized player that likely slots in on the weakside, meanwhile Williams will likely be the third-team middle linebacker. To have any shot, the trio will have to really stand out on special teams. Among the three, Gaines probably has the best chance (although remote) to stick, while Kitchens has the biggest mountain to climb.