PITTSFORD – Nigel Bradham realizes just how close he came to throwing away his life-long dream.
Less than a month before the start of the 2013 season, Bradham was ticketed for marijuana possession in the Town of Tonawanda.
The charge was eventually dismissed, but the wake-up call that came with it is one that Bradham hears every morning.
“I never want to be in that situation again. I’ll make sure I never put myself in that situation again,” Bradham said Tuesday after the Bills wrapped up their third day of training camp at St. John Fisher College. “That was one of the main things this offseason was refocusing, and not hanging around the guys who I was hanging around, because they’re not really friends. The guys who are out here grinding with me are my friends. That’s what I had to learn.”
Bills coach Doug Marrone noticed the change in Bradham during spring practice.
“Honestly, I think last year Nigel struggled at times with us. I saw a change, more of a commitment from him when we came back, which I give him a lot of credit for,” Marrone said. “He came back and really had solid OTAs and really played well.”
The timing couldn’t be better for the Bills after the expected starter at weak-side linebacker, Kiko Alonso, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee earlier this month preparing for training camp. He’s expected to miss the entire year.
“I think that when the situation happened with Kiko, in talking with Jim Schwartz, we’d been talking to Nigel for a while and how pleased we were with his play,” Marrone said. “We said, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ve got a guy here that’s been playing really well. That’s a heck of an athlete that’s played and done some good things.’ I’m excited about him having that opportunity.”
Replacing Alonso – who took every snap and finished as the runner-up for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award – won’t be easy.
“He’s one of the best young linebackers in the league right now,” Bradham said. “Me and him is like brothers. I was probably the guy he talked to the most – and he doesn’t talk that much.
“I’d much rather be beside him, but it’s also an opportunity. We lost a leader out there, now it’s the next guy up. It just so happens to be me.”
Bradham’s 2013 season was shot from the moment he was pulled over. He lost his starting job to Arthur Moats, and saw fewer than 10 defensive snaps in five of the first seven games.
“I was hurting the whole season,” Bradham said. “I’ve always been a humble guy, and that was a very humbling experience. It took a lot of pain, but my passion for my game has stayed strong and I’m just blessed to have another opportunity.”
As soon as the 2013 season ended, Bradham refocused.
“Realizing that I could have lost something that I worked my whole life for really stuck with me,” he said. “I mean, I love this game. I want to be out here. I love this team and I love the city of Buffalo. When I went through that experience where I could have lost that, it made me more committed.”
As it turns out, Bradham is also getting another type of fresh start.
Jim Schwartz has replaced Mike Pettine as the Bills’ defensive coordinator, and last year’s linebackers coaches – Jim O’Neil and Chuck Driesbach – have been replaced by Fred Pagac.
“Either way, I was going to come out and grind whether or not we kept the same coaches, but you’ve got to take the situations as they are,” Bradham said. “Mike Pettine was a great coach. Hopefully he’ll do well where he’s at. With a coach like Jim Schwartz coming in, he’s a guy who’s aggressive, who’s going to be on us and who’s going to want to make us want to be a great defense.”
Bradham feels at home in the weak-side ’backer role of a 4-3 scheme. It’s the position he played at Florida State for four years, during which he finished tied for 15th in Atlantic Coast Conference history with 305 total tackles.
“It can be great, man,” Bradham said of the Bills’ new scheme. “It kind of reminds me of my college defense. There are a lot of similarities. I’ve got an opportunity to play somewhere I’ve got a comfortable feel, so hopefully I can perform well and make plays for the team to put us in position to win.”
Physically, Bradham is a good fit for the job. At 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds, the former fourth-round pick has the athleticism required for the job (he ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine). And if the end of Tuesday’s practice is any indication, he’s got the work ethic to go along with it now, too.
Long after all the other linebackers had headed to the locker room, Bradham was out doing work on the blocking sled.
“I told myself that every day I was going to come out here and get better at something,” he said. “I don’t want anything getting away from me this time.”