Secret Superstars 2014: Bills
The Bills' secret superstar comes from a front seven with a number of talented players. Pete Damilatis explores the linebacker's reason for optimism.
Secret Superstars 2014: Bills
Considering that they have the NFL’s longest active playoff drought, it’s easy to assume that the Buffalo Bills are lacking talent. However, a look at their depth chart shows that’s simply not the case.
Gradually, and somewhat quietly, Buffalo has closed up most of its roster holes and collected some promising players, particularly on defense. Marcell Dareus and the ever-underrated Kyle Williams both cracked the Top 30 of our best players of 2013 list, and together they form the best interior line pairing the NFL has to offer.
His mega-contract aside, Mario Williams has been a very good and very versatile edge defender, and opposite bookend Jerry Hughes is coming off a season where he led all starting 3-4 outside linebackers in Pass Rushing Productivity. Throw in recently signed run-stopper Brandon Spikes and the growing legend of Kiko Alonso, and the Bills are a sleeper candidate for the NFL’s best front seven this season.
While those names are all fairly recognizable, we’ve dug deep into the Buffalo roster for a Secret Superstar who didn’t even play a quarter of his team’s defensive snaps last season and will be in a fight for a roster spot in training camp. That would be third-year linebacker Nigel Bradham, and if all breaks right he could be a difference-maker who helps the Bills finally convert their talent to the win-loss column.
A fourth-round selection in the 2012 draft, Bradham was accustomed to plenty of playing time after leading Florida State in tackles for three straight seasons. He patiently came off the bench in his first four games as a rookie, but he played over half the Bills defensive snaps in Week 5 and didn’t look back. He supplanted Arthur Moats as the starting strongside linebacker the next week, and stayed there for the remainder of the season.
Buffalo deployed Bradham as a run-stopping specialist in their base defense, as 93.3% of his snaps came on either first or second down. After a rocky start, he gradually grew into the role. He missed three tackles in Weeks 5 and 6, but whiffed on just one the rest of the season. After a -3.6 run defense grade in his first 10 games, he posted a +3.0 in his last four. As Bradham finished his rookie campaign, all signs pointed upward for his second season.
Alas, despite talk of high expectations last summer under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Bradham did not pick up where he left off. He made news in August for all the wrong reasons when he was charged with marijuana possession after a traffic stop, and a few days later had a poor preseason performance against the Redskins. He then posted a career-low -1.9 run defense grade against the Patriots in the season opener, as the New England offensive linemen routinely manhandled him at the second level.
The Bills’ coaches certainly took notice, as Bradham played a combined 20 snaps over the next four weeks. Moats secured the starting spot at inside linebacker next to Alonso, and it would take Bradham most of the season to get it back.
Bradham’s road back was not a smooth one; he earned 40 snaps in Week 6 against the Bengals but played just four the next game against the Dolphins. In Week 11, he was relegated to special teams duty. But when he did get on the field, he flashed the talent that showed why the Bills’ staff was so optimistic about him just a few months earlier.
While Alonso made headlines by flying all over the field with reckless abandon, Bradham distinguished himself most with his fearless desire to take on blockers at the point of attack. Two plays in particular come to mind; with 3:23 left in the first quarter of Week 10, Bradham stood up Steelers fullback Will Johnson and came off the block to push Le’Veon Bell back for a short gain (shown below). In Week 14, with 12:17 left in the second quarter, Bradham completely blew up Buccaneers fullback Erik Lorig at the point of attack to force Bobby Rainey outside.
Bradham finally earned two starts in the Bills last four games, and when all was said and done his +6.3 run defense grade was the best of any Bills linebacker last season. He earned the eighth-best run defense grade of any inside linebacker in the NFL, despite playing a quarter of a season’s worth of snaps. And with five positive grades in his final six contests, he once again headed into the offseason with some momentum.
Competition in 2014
Much like Buffalo’s last Secret Superstar, Alex Carrington, Bradham’s biggest obstacle next season will be his own teammates. Moats may have left in free agency, but the addition of Spikes, Keith Rivers, and third-round draft pick Preston Brown, along with incumbent Manny Lawson, creates fierce competition for playing time in new coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme. Spikes, as our highest-graded run-defending inside linebacker for two years running, is likely assured a starting spot, but there’s reason to believe Bradham can be the one to win the job aside him and Alonso.
Beyond his stout run defense, Bradham is also a sure tackler, missing just six in 86 attempts over his two seasons. He had the eighth-highest Tackling Efficiency of all inside linebackers to take 200 snaps last season. And despite being used primarily as a run defender, he posted a solid +2.6 coverage grade in 2013. In fact, after allowing just four receptions for 42 yards all season, his 0.39 Yards Allowed Per Coverage Snap was the best rate by any inside linebacker with 20 snaps last season. This helps explain why former Bills general manager Buddy Nix claimed that Bradham could be a three-down player last summer.
Buffalo has been a bottom-five team in rushing yards allowed for each of the last five seasons. Given the talent in its front seven, it has no excuses for not breaking that slump this season. If Bradham finds his way onto the field more often, the 2014 Bills become an even better bet to buck their recent history.
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