2014 NFL Draft: Linebacker Options to Fix Buffalo’s Run Defense

If the Buffalo Bills choose to improve their linebacker corps with the No. 9 overall pick, UCLA’s Anthony Barr is one possible option. (Photo: Andrew Weber — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski

The Buffalo Bills improved in many ways under a new coaching staff in 2013, but stopping the run continued to be a problem. The Bills ranked 28th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 129 yards per game, 4.4 yards per carry and 19 runs of longer than 20 yards.

Middle linebacker Kiko Alonso had a tremendous rookie year, totaling 159 tackles and two sacks, but he showed far more value in coverage, sometimes being swallowed up by blockers in run defense. If the Bills are going to get better against the run as a team, they need to spend the offseason adding more stout talent around Alonso in the linebacker corps.

With that in mind, the Bills should have their eyes on some of the following linebackers in the upcoming draft who excel against the run. Most of these players have experience in versatile defenses or possess skill sets that would lend themselves to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s hybrid system.

First-Round Prospects

Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

The top linebacker on many Bills fans’ wish lists, Mack is a very skilled run defender. He uses the same traits that help him get to the quarterback to his favor in run support. He has exceptional quickness, which allows him to hit gaps, make tackles and disrupt the line of scrimmage. He also has the strength to set the edge and is a sure tackler when he gets his arms on ballcarriers.

In space, Mack’s elite speed gives him the ability to run plays down. He could be a perfect fit for the Bills because he has played snaps at every position on the defensive front seven, which means he could take to any of Pettine’s varied defensive looks with relative comfort.

Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

Barr makes his name as a pass-rusher, but has more ability stopping the run than many give him credit for. After switching from running back to linebacker prior to his junior season, Barr has been able to use his athleticism to consistently get to the quarterback and secure a reputation as a feared edge-rusher over the past two seasons.

Barr also displays good leverage against blockers, shedding blocks well and using his superior strength to remain in every play. He is able to use his long arms to trip rushers or push them back inside to waiting defenders. What makes Barr so enticing as a prospect is the relative progress he has shown in so little time as a linebacker. With more years to grow and learn, his above-average skills against the run could likely turn into a serious asset to compliment his dynamic abilities as a pass-rusher.

C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama

Another popular pick for the Bills, including in Ryan Talbot’s first Bills seven-round mock draft, Mosley proved himself as an every-down run defender in 2013. Though he did not become a full-time player until his senior season, he always had a reputation as a solid overall player who is not afraid to stick his nose in a scrum, sheds blockers easily and tackles downhill consistently.

Mosley is an intelligent linebacker who as a captain for the Alabama defense this season, consistently got his teammates lined up properly and called necessary adjustments. He is a sure tackler who can run through contact and who consistently squares his shoulders to the ballcarrier. When he makes tackles, he does so with aggression and force. He is also the best coverage linebacker in the draft class and has experience in multiple fronts.

The addition of Stanford’s Shanye Skov would give the Buffalo Bills another downhill playmaker at linebacker. (Photo: Kelley L. Cox — USA Today Sports)

Day 2 Prospects

Shayne Skov, ILB, Stanford

While Skov’s 2012 season was a disappointment, he resurrected his value in his senior year, showing himself again as a pure downhill run defender. He is disruptive between the tackles and shows the athleticism to play against the zone read. Skov is a solid tackler who loves be physical, but he does not play out of control. He likes to come up to the line of scrimmage before plays, which occasionally makes him susceptible to play fakes, but he doesn’t get fooled often and usually sends a message when he makes a hit.

Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin

Borland is the prototypical Big Ten linebacker who excels against the run. He is a true banger who is as good as a power tackler as he is using intelligence to manipulate running lanes. He comes downhill well, sheds blocks and wraps up with nearly impeccable technique.

Borland is a bit short, listed at 5’11″ by Wisconsin’s official athletics website, but he is aggressive and looks for contact. He is not much of a talent in pass coverage, but could play the middle and be a real force against the run.

Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama

Hubbard is another player on the list whose reputation is being a factor coming off the edge. His 6’6”, 262-pound frame makes him built to get after the quarterback, especially since he has room to put on more weight. That said, Hubbard is an exceptional athlete who could make his NFL living as a 3-4 OLB.

He holds the point of attack well against the run and plays with leverage. He uses his long arms to keep blockers off of him and give himself space to make tackles. When he does wrap up, he’s a strong tackler with good closing speed that allowed him to make 11 tackles for loss in 2012 and six this season.

Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU

Van Noy is another versatile linebacker who shows real skills against the run. He can disengage from blocks to make tackles or knife between blockers to disrupt runs at the line of scrimmage. He shows solid balance and incredible intelligence, using the sidelines when needed and diagnosing plays quickly.

A physical defender, Van Noy is also solid in pursuit if he can’t make the play at the line of scrimmage. When given a chance to wrap up the ballcarrier, Van Noy doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s a sure tackler who plays much stronger than his size would indicate.

Christian Jones, OLB, Florida State

Jones has played in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, which helps make him a versatile run defender. He shows a good ability to shut down cutback lanes and can set the edge when needed, while he also has great ability to play against the zone read thanks to his athleticism.

A solid tackler with good speed, Jones can make plays sideline to sideline and pursue when he misreads a play, which happens more often than one would like to see. His speed and athleticism, however, make him a solid coverage linebacker and a good all-around defender.

See page 2 for a look at nine more linebackers who could potentially bolster the Buffalo Bills defense.

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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Adrian Hubbard, Alabama, Anthony Barr, Buffalo, Buffalo Bills, BYU, C.J. Mosley, Chris Borland, Christian Jones, Colorado State, Connecticut, Devon Kennard, Florida State, Hayes Pullard, Jack Tyler, Khalil Mack, Kyle Van Noy, Lamin Barrow, Linebackers, Louisville, LSU, Notre Dame, Preston Brown, Prince Shembo, Run-Stoppers, Shaquil Barrett, Shayne Skov, Stanford, Trent Murphy, UCLA, USC, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Yawin Smallwood

6 Responses to “2014 NFL Draft: Linebacker Options to Fix Buffalo’s Run Defense”

  1. Grif says:

    It just really depends on what Pettine thinks we need. If Pettine thinks we need a guy that can hold the edge and rush the passer in certain situations than he’s obviously going to go with more of a 3-4 OLB like Barr or Mack. But in my opinion he’s just going need more of a 2-down thumper, so he might like Smallwood or Lamin Barrow.

    • Eric Samulski says:

      I agree with you here. I wouldn’t be upset to see a guy like Barr or Mack because they are real defensive difference makers. In terms of strict need, I think a two down thumper is perfect. Kiko can play OLB in run situations and help in coverage on TEs and then move back inside in pass rush situations.

  2. TJ Never says:

    The linebacker “class” seems to be thinner than last year.

    There just don’t seem to be Round 2 linebackers to go after. No Bobby Wagner or Lavonte David quality of players.

    That being said, I hope the Bills go after at least one solid LB in free agency, failing that they may have to draft Mosley. But hopefully after trading down to about 15th.

    • Eric Samulski says:

      I think you’ll be surprised by the depth once the testing gets done. A lot of these guys are far more athletic than people think. Also, in terms of the Bills need, I think there are some 2nd and 3rd round guys who will emerge as real candidates to simply beef up the run defense, not be 100+ tackling machines.

  3. Eric Samulski says:

    Also, keep an eye on Carl Bradford from Arizona State who just declared.

  4. John C says:

    Any thoughts on Andrew Jackson (ILB) from Western Kentucky as a thumper?

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