Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
Not since the early years of Paul Posluszny's career has the middle linebacker position for the Bills been locked down by an incumbent starter from one season to the next. Last year's starter at the position is no longer on the roster after Kelvin Sheppard was traded to Indianapolis in the Jerry Hughes trade. It's left a vacuum at a position that's of critical importance in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme.
Knowing Pettine's scheme offers varied fronts, there won't always be a true middle linebacker, but there are a few candidates competing for the inside role that will essentially run the defense this season. Rookie Kiko Alonso, Nigel Bradham, Arthur Moats and Bryan Scott are all considered to be in the mix entering training camp, but Buffalo's second-round pick has quickly made a solid first impression.
"I think we're very pleased with where Kiko is and it's a solid room," said Pettine of Alonso. "(Inside linebackers ) Coach (Chuck) Dreisbach has done a very good job developing those guys, whether it's Arthur Moats or Nigel Bradham, Bryan Scott. We've been working Marcus Dowtin both inside and outside. We're pleased with where that group is."
As encouraged as Pettine might be with the depth at the position, Buffalo's defensive coordinator did not wait long to insert Alonso as the starting middle linebacker with the first unit just a week into OTA practices in May. But Pettine and head coach Doug Marrone aren't marking any players down in pen at the top of the depth chart.
"I see a player that's very comfortable out there," said Marrone of Alonso. "Sometimes you look at someone and they're bright-eyed and trying to get of sense of what's going on around him. I see him coming in with a purpose and a willingness to compete for a starting position. He's shown he has all the ability to play all three downs within the defense whether it be run, pass, nickel, sub, whatever it may be. We're excited about seeing how he progresses, but again we'll see if he can make the same type of growth he's making now."
Alonso clearly saw the most time at the middle linebacker position with the starters and logged a ton of reps, no doubt to get the rookie up to speed as quickly as possible in the defensive system.
"I feel really good. Coach has been helping me out a lot. The veterans have been helping me out a lot and making things a little bit better," Alonso told Buffalobills.com. "I wouldn't say it's easy. It's just a lot of studying. You've got to get in the playbook and just think about it all the time. That helps a lot. It's repetition."
The Oregon product has demonstrated sideline to sideline ability and keen pass-run diagnostic skills. He's also benefited from the fact that he played in a lot of similar defensive concepts in Buffalo's scheme in college.
"He has come in and he is as close to NFL ready as I've seen a rookie linebacker step into this system," said Pettine. "He's smart. You can tell he's tough. Some of the guys you worry about being in shorts and what's it going to be like in pads. I don't think that's going to be an issue with Kiko watching him here and having gone back and studying him. He really has had minimal mental mistakes and he hasn't been out of place. So when he has been with the ones he has fit right in and not looked out of place for a snap."
The candidate most likely to push Alonso is Bradham. After spending most of his rookie season at strong side linebacker in a 4-3 system last year, Bradham has been working inside as well and made his share of plays.
"Nigel can run now," said Pettine. "That's the one thing we're going to take advantage of. He's explosive so there are times where if he's a little slow to diagnose he can make up for it with his speed. We've been real pleased with that. He's a guy that's been real coachable. It's not often that he makes the same mistake a second time. That's what we're looking at from all the guys. They're responsible for all the coaching points made at their position. So if a mike LB makes a mistake the second team mike LB needs to make sure that he's responsible for that and I think the group as a whole has done that, Nigel in particular."
"You pretty much continue to get reps and study film," said Bradham. "That's about the best way you can make progress. You can get to that point as fast as you can to know all the weaknesses and strengths of each call that we make. And pretty much just know what the guy is doing next to you and being able to communicate."
Bryan Scott has carved out a niche for himself at the linebacker position the past couple of seasons. The veteran has served as a nickel linebacker and may have a similar role this season. Knowing how much Pettine covets player versatility however, Scott could be a dark horse candidate in the middle linebacker competition.
"With our defense I'm playing linebacker, but we run so many different schemes, there's no telling where I'm going to be," said Scott. "The competition though is nothing I think about. I'm working on me and then everything falls in place from there."
Arthur Moats has been a man on the move in each of his three NFL seasons. In Buffalo's new defense he initially started inside, but has seen some time outside at linebacker as well. It's hard to decipher exactly what the staff's plans are for him, but for now he's part of the competition.
"I feel like the OTAs the biggest part was making sure I got better every day," said Moats. "I feel like I'm getting better. I've just got to keep it up."
What the coaching staff will be watching closely is whose game improves the most when the pads go on at St. John Fisher.
"The critical time will be when they put the pads on and see what they can do making the tackles and reacting," said head coach Doug Marrone. "It's very difficult to judge when they're never in the mode of full finish of blocking. You never know who is going to turn it down a little bit, who is going to turn their head and use the proper technique."
Alonso appears to be the favorite with Bradham his next closest pursuer entering camp. Alonso would probably need to have a major drop-off in performance to relinquish the starting role to someone else. Still, it doesn't sound like any of the candidates are ready to concede anything.
"It's definitely going to be a great competition," said Bradham. "We're all competitors and we're all going to get after it each and every day and get each other better. We're going to push each other to make each other better and hopefully be one of the greatest linebacker corps in the league this year."