Life Without Kiko Alonso
By Josh Schoch
The Buffalo Bills received some devastating news late Tuesday night when they found out defensive cornerstone LB Kiko Alonso tore his ACL and will likely miss the entire 2014 season.
According to Mike Rodak of ESPN, the Pro Football Writers of America's Defensive Rookie of the Year tore his ACL while practicing in Oregon. Per Rodak, a source told Adam Schefter that the recovery will likely take between seven and nine months. The injury is somewhat surprising because it occurred while Alonso worked out alone in the relatively dead period between minicamp and training camp. However, it is nevertheless incredibly significant.
Alonso was the anchor of the team's defense in 2013. He played every single defensive snap while racking up 159 tackles, leading the team by 77 tackles and ranking third in the NFL. Under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, he was expected to play weakside linebacker while free-agent addition Brandon Spikes would play middle linebacker. Alonso and Spikes, paired with a talented defensive line, were expected to make up one of the stingiest run defenses in the NFL. However, without Alonso that will likely be nothing more than a fantasy for Bills fans.
It's a big job to replace Alonso, but somebody has to do it. And the early frontrunners to do so are Nigel Bradham, Keith Rivers and rookie Preston Brown.
Bradham is an interesting option for Buffalo. He is a third-year linebacker who is capable of playing the weak side because of his athleticism. He had been getting first-team reps in the nickel formation in OTAs, but saw most of his action on the strong side. He may still be able to transfer his considerable talents over to the other side of the field, however, and there is a lot of evidence to support the theory that he could be very productive on that side. As Chris Brown of “Inside the Bills” reported, the analytics support him being a standout. Pro Football Focus also named Bradham as the “Secret Superstar” for Buffalo back in May, and fans are certainly hoping that's the case.
Rivers is another guy who could make the leap from the strong side to the weak side. He played with the New York Giants the past two years, typically playing on the strong side. However, he told Brown that he sees himself more on the other side of the field: “Since my days at USC I’ve always been a sideline-to-sideline kind of player. I’ve kind of always been a WILL (weak side linebacker), but this past season I played a lot more SAM (strong side linebacker). Being in previous situations (and) some of the stuff we’re playing here, I’ve played in the past. It’s great to have familiarity with the calls.” However, Rivers appears to be the third option at this point.
Surprisingly, Buffalo has already announced who it expects to replace Alonso. Even more surprisingly, it is the rookie Brown. The Louisville product was selected in the third round and was expected to be a middle linebacker. When analyzing the team's draft picks in June, I compared Brown to Brandon Spikes as a run-stopping linebacker who struggled at times in coverage. However, the Bills liked what they saw in OTAs and minicamp enough to move him to the weak side. While he will still be a bit of a liability in the pass game, Brown will certainly help stop the run almost as well as the man he is replacing.
The team's run defense can still be good without Alonso, it simply won't be great. However, the bigger hit comes in the team's pass defense, which was relying heavily upon its outside linebackers. Spikes can fill running lanes on defense, but he can't drop back and cover receivers. That left a lot of pressure on the linebackers alongside him, including Alonso, who tied for the team lead in interceptions last season with four. Now, Brown will be asked to do something similar.
Another reason Buffalo fans should be concerned about the team's pass defense is one of the players Alonso tied with for the team lead. FS Jairus Byrd already departed western New York this spring for the New Orleans Saints. That means that the team now has two gaping holes left in its pass defense and could struggle mightily against star receivers like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Jordy Nelson this season.
The problems for the Bills could last more than just the 2014 season, as well. After looking like an ironman while playing on every defensive play for Buffalo last season, Alonso has looked incredibly frail since. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in January, which was expected to take 4-6 months to heal. And now, he has suffered another major injury that will keep him out of action for the upcoming season. If his injury woes continue, he may have serious problems down the road as his career progresses.
One of the NFL's bright young stars suffered a terrible injury on Tuesday and he's left Buffalo scrambling to replace him. How they attempt to do so will certainly be among the team's most intriguing storylines in the coming weeks.