BBD Assistant Editor: Ryan Talbot
Kiko Alonso had a brilliant rookie season. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed, as the Buffalo Bills linebacker was named Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America. However, the Bills won’t be getting an encore performance in 2014. Alonso tore his left ACL earlier this week while working out in Oregon, and he is likely out for the season.
From the second Alonso was drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, he was pegged to start with the Bills. Right out of the gate, Alonso proved to have a nose for the ball. With the Bills up 21-17 in Week 1 against the New England Patriots, quarterback Tom Brady looked to score a touchdown with a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line. Instead, Brady muffed the snap and Alonso recovered the ball for the Bills.
In each of his first four games with the Bills, Alonso registered at least one sack, interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery.
Among those, a sack of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in Week 2 ended a game that the Bills won 24-23.
In Week 4, Alonso had one of his finest performances of the season in a 23-20 victory against the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Alonso and the Bills defense shut the Ravens offense down, holding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to 24 yards on nine rushes while forcing Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to throw 50 passes. Flacco threw five interceptions; two of those went to Alonso, including Flacco’s final time intercepted, which sealed a victory.
Alonso finished his first month with 32 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and four interceptions. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.
After his hot start, Alonso became a fan favorite and even spawned a Twitter hashtag, #TheLegendofKikoAlonso, while he was also featured on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown.
Alonso kept his end of the legend going with insane plays like this:
Alonso finished his rookie season having played every Bills defensive snap last season, 1,176 in total. He finished with 159 total tackles, good for third in the league, along with two sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and four interceptions.
Alonso was ranked by Advanced NFL Stats as the NFL’s second-most productive linebacker this past season, according to their Win Probability Added formula. Pro Football Focus graded Alonso as the NFL’s ninth-best inside linebacker.
What Do the Bills Lose with Alonso Out of Their New Defense?
Replacing Alonso won’t be easy for the Bills. The team has depth at the linebacker position, but no one has a skill set like Alonso.
One area where the Bills will especially miss Alonso is in coverage. Last season, while playing inside linebacker, Alonso was given a +13.1 coverage rating, the second-best among all ILBs in the league, by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). As a weakside linebacker, Alonso would have been expected to sometimes drop back into zone coverages, cover passes to the flats and sometimes cover the first man out of the backfield. Buffalo will be hard-pressed to find a linebacker internally or on the free-agent market who has Alonso’s coverage skills.
In run defense, Alonso’s main responsibility would be to cover the end and make sure running backs couldn’t take runs out to his side. Alonso’s speed and instincts seemed excellent for this role.
Who Replaces Alonso?
Buffalo has internal options in Nigel Bradham, Preston Brown and Keith Rivers.
Bradham, PFF’s “Secret Superstar” for the Bills in 2013, performed very well against the run but on a limited snap count (288). Behind Arthur Moats on the depth chart last year, Bradham played in all 16 games but only started in two. His +6.4 run defense rating from PFF was 10th-best among all ILB in 2013, but his results were a bit skewed because he failed to meet the threshold of playing 25 percent of his team’s snaps.
In coverage, Bradham received a +2.8 rating from PFF. He has the athleticism to perform well in that capacity, but he’ll have to prove his worth in training camp to win the weak-side linebacker job.
Brown is the wild card among the three internal candidates. According to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, “the third-round draft pick from Louisville was outstanding at the team’s voluntary workouts and minicamp” and the Bills, according to Graham’s source, might actually be looking at the rookie to fill in for Alonso. Brown is a bigger linebacker at 260 pounds, but Buffalo used him as the team’s first-string nickel linebacker during OTAs. Brown will be tested at training camp, but if he performs well he may get the starting nod.
Rivers is currently slotted as the team’s starting strongside linebacker, but he has experience on the weakside as well. In his five NFL seasons thus far, Rivers has performed well as a run stopper but hasn’t thrived in coverage. As the Bills realign their linebacker corps, they will likely give Rivers an opportunity on the weakside to see how he performs.
Alonso’s Role in 2015
Regardless of who wins the weakside linebacker job in 2014 and how well Alonso’s replacement performs, Alonso should be the starter at the position in 2015.
Brown is best suited to play inside linebacker and is the likeliest candidate to start at middle linebacker in 2015 as Brandon Spikes was only signed to a one-year contract this offseason. Rivers, meanwhile, is likely to start at SLB if he performs well this season, even if he ends up playing WLB this year. The same could be said for Bradham: if he emerges as a star in 2014, he can play strongside linebacker alongside Brown and Alonso in 2015.
Alonso, like the rest of Buffalo’s 2013 NFL draft picks, was going to be covered in our regular Sophomore Spotlight format prior to his injury. The rest of the sophomore spotlights are linked below: