Building an NFL defense, regardless of scheme, is never particularly easy to do. If you're running a 4-3 with zone principles, you need to find four excellent defensive linemen capable of creating a consistent pass rush on their own. Only then will you be able to employ the types of coverages you'd like to. Linebackers must cover more ground, and therefore must be faster, but bigger players are also preferred. Corners must be excellent tacklers and sound against the run; deep speed can be sacrificed thanks to two deep safeties.
The Buffalo Bills, however, are installing the 3-4 defense. Perhaps the most difficult position to fill in that defense - a position which requires a unique athlete with a very particular skill set - is the nose tackle position. Despite only having plans to run the defense for a couple of months, the Bills have done surprisingly well building depth at this most critical position.
After the jump, we continue our State of the Bills Roster series by taking a look at the Bills' three-deep stable of capable nose tackles. This should be our quickest review, and there's a chance that this position could be viewed as a team strength a year from now, and perhaps sooner.
This will vary somewhat on passing downs, but the vast majority of the time, Buffalo's nose tackles will be asked to control two gaps. That will often mean taking on multiple blockers, and that's precisely what good nose tackles command - extra attention. That's why nose tackles are typically the biggest-bodied players in the game, and that's also why big players with stamina and athletic issues - like Terrence Cody - aren't as favored as they could be. Nose tackle is still a pursuit position; hence it being such a difficult position to fill - massive men with the ability to chase running backs down play in and play out aren't exactly readily available. Luckily, the Bills have some players here that can move, too. This is not a glory position by any means, and the Bills have unheralded, team-first players here that don't need glory.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
95 - Kyle Williams. Entering his fifth NFL season, the 6'1", 306-pound Williams has been one of Buffalo's most durable and productive defenders throughout his career. He's been a starter since day one, has appeared in 62 of a possible 64 games, and is coming off a career season that included 66 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and the honor of being named a Pro Bowl alternate. He's not a classic fit as a two-gap 3-4 nose, as he's more athlete than anchor. He can anchor against multiple blockers, but he'll wear down if he's asked to do it too often. He also doesn't have the length to consistently control blockers. Williams is tough, hustles, and has a gritty playing style, which will help him survive (and probably flourish) in this defense. But there's a very good reason the Bills targeted a traditional nose tackle this off-season.
96 - Torell Troup. Many consider the Bills' draft-day selection of Troup (6'3", 315 pounds) at No. 42 overall a reach, and they may eventually be right. But Troup can play, and was a consistently solid-to-excellent performer at Central Florida. He's big, stout at the point of attack, quick on his feet and capable of playing a lot of snaps in a football game. He fits very well into the 3-4 defense. The real question surrounding Troup at this point in time isn't whether or not he was a reach, but whether or not he'll be able to pick up the defense quickly enough to be the Bills' full-time nose tackle sooner rather than later. I think he's capable of it. Time will tell.
75 - Lonnie Harvey. Not much is known about the second-year player that came to us via the Carolina Panthers, aside from the fact that he is one massive individual (6'3", 342 pounds). He's certainly got the size to play in this defense, but I'll reserve judgment on his playing abilities until seeing him in action in the pre-season. My hopes are up.
Williams is under contract for three more seasons at a very reasonable $5.3 million in total; barring him completely falling out of favor with Nix and Gailey - and given their praise of him, that's incredibly unlikely - Williams will be around for a while. Troup will likely get a four-year deal as a second-round pick. Harvey signed a reserve/future contract in January, but duration and compensation are unknown. Let's just say he's got a year.
Perhaps the most underrated quality of this group is its overall durability. As I'm sure you're well aware, the ability to stay on the field has been largely absent from this roster over the past few years. Williams has been one guy that has been on the field producing game in and game out, and Troup was valued highly by the team because of his durability as well. If the Bills are right about those two players and they stay lucky, the Bills will have an excellent duo to rotate that won't wear down over the course of a game or a season. Add in the big-bodied Harvey, and I really like the mix of players the team has put together here in a short time frame, particularly since the group is young.
Williams, I believe, will be the initial starter at nose tackle, but the team won't be shy about getting Troup a ton of reps early to see if he's up to task. Eventually, the plan appears to be letting Troup take the nose tackle role away from Williams, allowing the latter to move more freely up and down the line. As for Harvey, his fate depends largely on the numbers game, but I like his chances of sticking with the team as a project.
There's not much to predict here. It's fairly apparent that Williams will rotate with Troup initially, with the goal of Troup assuming full-time nose guard duties the obvious long-term objective. I will, however, predict that all three of these players will make the final roster. Harvey was born for this scheme, and still has some upside. I think they'll keep him around as a project type who can help out on run downs in the event of injury.