While much of the focus at Bills training camp will be on the battle at quarterback, lets not forget to keep an eye on the defense which, statistically, has been among the worst in the NFL the last few years. The pre-season will be needed to determine a few starting spots but it will also give us a chance to see what the defense will be all about.
Mike Pettine, the new Defensive Coordinator says his defense is a hybrid which can go back and forth between a 4-3 and a 3-4. When all is said and done, the defense will likely be in a nickel or dime package at least two thirds of the time. Its expected to utilize an aggressive, attacking approach which will be a breath of fresh air for most Bills fans who suffered while watching the Bills blitz the least amount of time of any team last season.
As opposed to 2012 when the defense became predictable, this season you should expect to see players being moved around and being trained to play in multiple positions making them more versatile. The Bills will attempt to create as much confusion for opposing offenses pre-snap as possible.
As far as starting jobs go, the biggest questions will be at linebacker where the Bills could be relying on a second year player and a rookie to come up big. The coaches are expecting huge strides from Nigel Bradham, a fourth round pick in the 2012 draft. Bradham made 11 starts last season but was more of a situational player, seeing no more than 77% of snaps in any game. Bradham will likely be asked to be a three down player this season and have added pass rush responsibilities. Last season, the Florida State product rushed the quarterback only 15 times.
The surprise of the defense could be rookie Kiko Alonso, a second round pick in this year's draft from Oregon. Alonso impressed many during the Organized Team Activities and the minicamp with both his physical and mental skills. Alonso, who had 14 tackles for loss, four interceptions, seven passes defended and two forced fumbles his senior season, is another linebacker who can be an every down player.
Manny Lawson is another new face in the Bills linebacking corps. Signed as a free agent for $12 million over four years, Lawson has played both defensive end and outside linebacker in his seven year NFL career and has been on 3-4 defenses as well as 4-3. He has started at least ten games in all seven of his previous seasons.
Keep an eye on the secondary where the jobs of nickel cornerback and the starting safety spot, opposite a still unsigned Jairus Byrd, are up for grabs.
As far as nickel corner, the field includes Ron Brooks, Justin Rogers and Crezdon Butler. Rogers has had the job before, playing in 13 games in 2011 and in all 16 last season. A seventh round pick in the 2011 draft, Rogers has two interceptions and nine passes defended in his brief Bills career.
Brooks, a second year player out of LSU, showed some promise in the 2012 pre-season before being injured. His first game wasn't until November 4th at Houston and Brooks did get a couple of starts, against Jacksonville and Seattle. Brooks showed good cover ability for a rookie but didn't have any picks to show for his nine games of work.
Butler is somewhat of a wild card in this battle. A promising prospect coming out of college, Butler was said to have first round potential following his career at Clemson. But he ended up going in round five to Pittsburgh where he played in just four games in 2010. Butler also spent some time with Arizona and Washington before hooking up with the Bills.
Assuming the unsigned Byrd will eventually attach his name to the one year franchise tender and show up to play this season, that leaves one safety starting job up for grabs with Da'Norris Searcy, Aaron Williams and rookie draft pick Duke Williams all in the mix. A fourth round selection in 2011, Searcy has 31 games on his resume with one interception and a pair of forced fumbles. Aaron Williams couldn't cut it as a corner so the Bills second round pick in 2011 has been moved to safety by Pettine and appeared to be more comfortable at that position during the OTA's and minicamp. Williams, who allowed five touchdowns in his first five games at corner, hasn't played safety since high school.
Another interesting aspect to watch for will be how Pettine uses all of his players. It remains to be seen what his plans are for Jerry Hughes who came over from Indianapolis in the trade for Kelvin Sheppard. Hughes was a pass rushing monster in college at TCU with 26 1/2 sacks in his last two years for the Horned Frogs. But the former first round pick never amounted to much with the Colts although, he was stuck behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the depth chart for the most part. Hughes had just five sacks in three seasons in the Hoosier state.
What can the Bills get out of Mark Anderson? He was a big free agent signing last year but of course, it was minor compared to the contract given to Mario Williams. A knee injury limited Anderson to five games, mostly nondescript. He's had two surgeries and wasn't able to do much in terms of the off season team activities.
It should make for a very interesting training camp and we will keep you covered on WGR Sportsradio 550 and WGR550.com.