Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have fostered an environment of competition. It doesn’t matter what position you play or what name is on the back of your jersey; the staff created an environment that promotes competition.
One of the biggest competitions that will unfold is at the linebacker position. It is a unit that has so many different types of players: young, old, experienced, and even a share of rookies. Carl Bradford, a former fourth round pick of the Green Bay Packers, was a player the Bills signed to compete.
He isn’t a player that I think offers much upside or even legit competition to start, but crazier things have happened. Bradford entered the league in 2014, but he has only appeared in 33 regular season snaps, all of which came last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was 5th in run stop percentage amongst inside linebackers last preseason.
He is a former hybrid player from Arizona State, a guy that had a very productive career.
He often lined up as a defensive end, but in certain blitz packages he was in a two point stance and showed very good change of direction on stunts and games.
But his physical limitations are significant: 30 1/4 inch arms and lack of a pass rush arsenal led to Green Bay shifting him to weak inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. From all accounts, he struggled, which is saying a lot, because the inside backer positions have long been a position of weakness in Packer country.
He plays very well versus the run, and mainly versus outside runs because they give him the best opportunity to avoid blocks or to be uncovered altogether. On this play from preseason, the safety spills the play and Bradford waits for the back to commit. He maintains good leverage, breaks down, and makes the tackle.
He isn’t the most athletic linebacker; he doesn’t offer top end speed or change of direction skills, but what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for with leverage. He rarely takes bad angles to the ball and sizes up the running backs pretty well. These kinds of traits are useful in 4-3 defenses, and especially one gap defenses. Leveraging gaps along with the ball is numero uno.
When asked to blitz from his linebacker position, he can flash some explosiveness. Overall, his explosiveness is average, but if put on or near the line of scrimmage and if schemed up properly, he does offer some pass rush ability. This blitz is a run blitz where he recognizes the down blocks. The right guard is pulling, so he fires his gun, gets downhill and takes out the guard and the tight end, and manages to bring the back down.
At the point of attack, he is average. He often processes too slowly, and if one-on-one with an offensive lineman, he just doesn’t possess the physical toughness to disengage. To a certain extent, this can be minimized by scheme or by having a strong defensive line in front of him; 3-4 defensive lines aren’t conducive to keeping inside backers clean.
In pass coverage, you don’t want him matched up with a modern running back. Bradford will have trouble running with those types of players. But as a zone backer, he can continue to use his angles and tackling to minimize big plays. He reminds me a lot of Preston Brown, primarily with his movement skills and what he does at the tackle point. When Bradford gets a chance to square up players, he delivers a nice thud on contact.
The following play was his best play of 2016, albeit in preseason. But he shows his zone coverage abilities by dropping to his landmark. He squeezes the tight end and recognizes the crosser entering his area, so he gets downhill and lays the running back out.
Potential Bills Fit:
This is hard to determine purely based on film, but taking into account the current linebackers on the roster and Bradford’s skills, I only see him working at Will and/or Sam linebacker, but ONLY in certain situations. In this scheme, they are often interchangeable. Of course, I believe his role is as a backup and special teamer, not a starter on defense. I don’t believe he has the take on/hand usage skills needed to play Sam linebacker in 4-3 under fronts. The Sam in 4-3 under is a position that often travels with the tight end, typically to the strength of the formation, and aligns on the line of scrimmage. In 4-3 over looks, I believe that he could be kept clean, allowing him to make plays in the run game and to keep most plays in the passing game in front of him.
In my opinion, he is a much better fit at outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, especially a zone based defense. He’d be best in the type of scheme that doesn’t rely on linebackers to chase tight ends and running backs all over the field. With that said, the chances of Bradford making the squad are pretty slim. The Bills invested two draft picks at linebacker and they are guys that are much more versatile than Bradford and also offer special teams abilities. This competition will be one to watch come minicamp.