Philadelphia, PA – The Buffalo Bills found a quarterback in April's NFL Draft and no, I'm not talking about E.J. Manuel.
Manuel, the Bills first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, may very well turn out to be the best signal caller in western New York since Jim Kelly but that's a history that has yet to be written.
Kiko Alonso, on the other hand, has already proven he's the man to lead the Bills' defensive unit. The middle linebacker, who was taken in the second- round of the draft out of Oregon, 30 slots after Manuel, has unquestionably been the NFL's top defensive rookie at the quarter pole of season.
Alonso has four interceptions through four games, two of them on Sunday as he contributed to Joe Flacco's career-high five picks in Buffalo's stunning 23-20 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Unlike most rookies, consistency has been the hallmark of Alonso's performance thus far. In his NFL debut against future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the 23-year-old recorded nine tackles as Buffalo almost pulled off an upset win. Meanwhile, Brady proved to be the only QB Alonso has been unable to steal one from.
The next week against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, Alonso had a total of 10 tackles, a pick and a sack to lead the Bills to their first win of the Doug Marrone and Manuel era.
In Week 3, Alonso finished a road loss to the New York Jets with eight tackles and an interception off fellow rookie Geno Smith, becoming the first Bills player to record an interception in back to back games since Jairus Byrd in 2009, who had interceptions in five consecutive games.
It was the trifecta plus one against the reigning Super Bowl MVP Flacco as Alonso's tackle output dipped slightly to five but his second pick of the day was a diving game-saver with 57 seconds remaining.
Flacco forced a pass over the middle intended to Dallas Clark and safety Da'Norris Searcy got a hand on the ball before Alonso proved to be Johnny on the spot in he tip drill.
"Everyone was trying to make a play," Flacco said. "I was trying to have Dallas (Clark) come across the safety space there and just stick one in there and get a change moving. The other guy (Alonso) made a nice play, a nice catch."
That was a bit of an understatement as the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Alonso flashed the kind of instinctiveness that can turn a 4.9 on the stopwatch into a 4.5.
Interestingly Alonso was downgraded a bit as a prospect due to what some described as a tentativeness between the tackles and when taking on lead blockers. He also took some hits for shoddy production on misdirection plays while at Oregon and his tendency to turn and look at receivers in coverage.
In other words, more than one scout though Alonso was mechanical with little feel for the game. The kid who has showed up in Buffalo, however, is a smart, player, the kind of read and react defender where there are no false steps.
"His instincts are phenomenal," Bills cornerback Aaron Williams told Buffalo reporters.
Marrone for one wasn't surprised by any of it.
"What's difficult for me to communicate here is if you think about early on in camp everyone is like, 'Well here he is, this guy is out there playing, is he your starting middle linebacker?' and I'm like, 'Yeah,'" the coach said, "And they were like 'Well is a three down linebacker?'
"For us early on we really felt that way."
Alonso himself hasn't spent a lot of time concentrating on his early success.
"I don't think about that," he said. "I just go and play my hardest. I'm just trying to get better every single day. We are just all trying to make plays and help the team win and that's all I care about."
Keeping up his current pace of production is untenable for Alonso or anyone else for that matter and the rookie "wall" looms for every first-year NFL player.
A four-game preseason schedule and a full 16-game regular-season slate followed by dare we say the playoffs is a lot different than the 13 or 14 contests -- many of them against inferior competition -- Alonso played every year in Eugene.
"He's playing very well, at a high level and I think what we have to do a very good job of, especially with all of our younger players, we have to do a good job of pushing them through," Marrone said. "Being a pro, getting them through the season, so we don't have the infamous label of the hitting the wall."
Alonso believes his time at with the Ducks practicing against Chip Kelly's up- tempo offense on a daily basis will only help him.
"Oregon had a ton of great players on the offensive side of the ball," Alonso said. "We had a lot of fast players, so it definitely helped."
It certainly helped Buffalo, which has found a quarterback for its defense. Now it's up to Manuel to prove he's the answer on the other side.
"It's something we're actually, obviously we're very happy with," Marrone said when discussing Alonso's play so far this season. "We're very proud of (Kiko). You see a player that's getting a better feel each week, getting better each week."