Reference for how the defensive depth chart is built:
The Bills showed a wide variety of defensive looks this preseason, so it is inaccurate to simply label them as a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
That said, their most common looks have featured three defensive linemen with two to four linebackers on the field, depending on the number of defensive backs on the field for the play.
In two- or three-linebacker looks, the Bills’ strongside linebacker typically lines up on the edge of the line similar to where a defensive end would like up in a traditional four-man front. The Bills then have one or two inside linebackers on the field depending on whether it is a nickel or dime formation, although they will occasionally use a look with two edge-rushing linebacker and a middle linebacker.
The other look is structured like a base 3-4, with three down linemen, two edge-rushing outside linebackers and two inside linebackers.
Because the strongside linebacker often lines up where a defensive end would, the three down linemen consequently line up as they would in a four-man front. While some of these players will play multiple spots on the line or at linebacker, the DE position signifies the end who lines up on the edge, while the DT position can be anything from a 1-technique to a 5-technique next to the nose tackle.
DE: Mario Williams NT: Marcell Dareus DT: Kyle Williams
4. Alex Carrington (DE/DT) 5. Alan Branch (NT/DT) 6. Jay Ross (NT/DT) 7. Corbin Bryant (DT/DE)
Dareus and the two Williams form a formidable trio of starters on the Bills’ defensive line. Carrington is an ideal fit for a rotational role as the fourth defensive lineman, as he can play both outside and inside and is a quality pass-rusher.
Branch did not have a great preseason, but the veteran free-agent signing should be in line for the team’s fifth defensive line spot as defensive tackle depth. Ross and Bryant have both been disruptive playmakers on the Bills’ defensive front this preseason, and have played their way into spots on a thin roster.
1. Manny Lawson 2. Jerry Hughes 3. Jamie Blatnick 4. Marcus Dowtin
The Bills added many pass-rushing outside linebackers to the roster this offseason, and fortunately for the Bills, four of them have stepped up well and proved that they can make an impact off the edge as both rushers and run defenders.
Lawson is the most well-rounded strongside linebacker on the roster in playing both the pass and the run, and should be the starter at this position. Hughes was one of the team’s top playmakers this preseason, and should factor into the rotation heavily throughout the season.
Blatnick and Dowtin are young players who have the ability to play in many spots on the defense, and both are talented athletes who can bring pressure off the edge but also play the run effectively in space and drop back into coverage.
Jamaal Westerman and undrafted rookie Keith Pough are both on the roster bubble as well, but it will be tough for the Bills to warrant keeping more than four players at this position.
MLB. Kiko Alonso WLB. Nigel Bradham 3. Arthur Moats 4. Bryan Scott
Alonso and Bradham should be locked in as the team’s two starting inside linebackers, with Alonso playing the “Mike” role and Bradham as the “Will.” Moats should be the first inside linebacker off the bench, which could be very important if Bradham faces a suspension for a recent marijuana arrest.
The team’s trade of Chris White to the Detroit Lions for Lewis was a good sign for Scott, as it should lock him into a roster spot as the team’s fourth inside linebacker. Scott is a good coverage linebacker whose athleticism makes him an asset off the bench on passing downs.
1. Stephon Gilmore (Injured) 2. Leodis McKelvin 3. Ron Brooks 4. Crezdon Butler 5. Justin Rogers 6. Nickell Robey 7. Waiver Claim
Stephon Gilmore is expected to miss at least the team’s first five games with a fractured wrist, which leaves the team very weak at the cornerback position. McKelvin may not be a No. 1 cornerback in skill, but he is the team’s only solid starter at the position, so he will ascend into that role on the depth chart.
The team is likely to turn to either Brooks or Butler as their second outside cornerback while Gilmore is sidelined, with Butler moving into the slot if the team chooses to move Brooks outside from his usual nickel role.
Rogers fell down the depth chart in a disappointing season last year, but the team has no better options than him at this point as their fourth or fifth cornerback. Robey has done about everything he can this preseason to lose his roster spot, including two muffed punts, but he may earn a roster spot by default simply because of the team’s weakness at the position.
The Bills could even keep T.J. Heath for additional cornerback depth, but Heath’s poor play Thursday proved that he does not belong on an NFL roster. The Bills desperately need to find a cornerback to add to their roster from the waiver wire, and if they can find two worth bringing in, Robey might lose his roster spot as well.
FS. Jairus Byrd SS. Aaron Williams 3. Duke Williams 4. Jonathan Meeks 5. Da’Norris Searcy
Byrd did not play this preseason, holding out for most of it before signing his franchise tender, but he should be back in the starting lineup for Week 1. Aaron Williams was shaky last Saturday versus the Washington Redskins, but he played well enough this preseason to earn a starting strong safety spot.
Rookie draft picks Duke Williams and Meeks showed some good flashes with the second-team defense this preseason and have earned themselves roster spot. Searcy played poorly this preseason, especially in coverage, but it makes sense to keep him for veteran depth given the lack of talent at the back end of the roster.
K: Dustin Hopkins P: Shawn Powell LS: Garrison Sanborn
The Bills will have an all-Florida State group of specialists this season, and this is one of the more secure areas of their roster. Hopkins and Powell are both solid young players with the potential to be among the league’s best at their positions, while Sanborn is a steady long snapper.
Goodwin showed this preseason that he can be a huge asset as a kickoff returner. Punt returner duties are likely to go to Woods; McKelvin is a strong punt returner, but the Bills would be smart not to risk him suffering a punt return injury given their dire lack of talent at the cornerback position.