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Buffalo Bills desperately need defensive tackle help

If this isn’t the weakest position on the roster heading into 2018, it’s certainly in the conversation

While the Buffalo Bills were a playoff team in 2017, they were far from a flawless team. With an offense that took a giant leap backwards under former offensive coordinator Rick Dennison beginning its latest overhaul Sunday afternoon, the Bills relied on their defense to create turnovers and provide solid field position.

Too often, the Bills were gashed right up the middle in the run game. The responsibility for that gashing is up for debate, as it could either be the fault of the defensive tackles or the linebackers they are supposed to free up to make plays, but it is abundantly clear that both positions are in desperate need of upgrades this offseason.

In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we dissect the defensive tackle position, which is arguably the weakest positional group on the team. Even if its strongest contributor is to return for one more season, plenty of additions at defensive tackle need to be explored.

Adolphus Washington

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $848,574 cap hit ($660,000 cap savings if post-6/1 cut)
  • Age: 23 (24 on 11/24/18)
  • Playing time: 509 snaps (45.94% of defensive snaps), 44 ST snaps (10.07%)
  • Key statistics: 33 combined tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defensed

Adolphus Washington is the best defensive tackle the Bills currently have under contract for 2018. If that isn’t alarming enough, consider that the other two players on this list combined for 25 defensive snaps in 2017.

The second-year man out of Ohio State served as a near-starter for most of the season, essentially splitting reps with Cedric Thornton. He is not a big-time play maker, nor is he someone who is overly stout against the run. He is the shiniest spare part in the collection of spare parts at the position. When I noted how weak this position is in the Rumblings editorial Slack channel, I characterized the group as “Adolphus and spare parts.” Dan Lavoie set me straight when he said, “Sean, you wrote ‘spare parts’ twice.”

The team absolutely cannot go into next season with Washington penciled in as a starter. If he’s a rotational piece, that’s one thing, but relying on him to start is not a good plan. Expect that he will either be the third or fourth defensive tackle in the rotation, or that he’ll be replaced entirely, as he almost was last offseason.

Marquavius Lewis

  • Contract status for 2018: signed to a reserve/future contract; $480,000 cap hit
  • Age: 25 (26 on 10/11/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

Lewis played some with the Bills during this year’s preseason, serving as both a defensive end and a defensive tackle at times. The 6’3”, 269-pounder isn’t a stout run anchor, and he isn’t someone who commands double-teams in the trenches. He did manage to combine for 7 tackles, a sack, and a pass defensed this preseason. As he is signed to a reserve/future contract, he’s most likely a camp body for next season.

Rickey Hatley

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $480,000 cap hit
  • Age: 23 (24 on 3/29/18)
  • Playing time: 25 snaps (2.26% of defensive snaps), 2 ST snaps (.46%)
  • Key statistics: 1 tackle

Hatley is a big man. At 6’4”, 320 pounds, he is easily Buffalo’s biggest defensive lineman. On a team that struggled to stop the run, that kind of girth can help a player wriggle his way onto a roster.

All 25 of Hatley’s regular-season snaps came in the season finale against the Miami Dolphins. While he only managed one tackle, the Bills held Miami to 93 yards rushing, 32 of which came on one run by Kenyan Drake. Hatley played 18 snaps in the Bills’ playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and while the Jags did manage to run for 155 yards, 88 of those were on Blake Bortles scrambles. Hatley appears to be someone who is worth keeping around, especially as a space-eater in the middle.

Kyle Williams

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 34 (35 on 6/10/18)
  • Playing time: 756 snaps (68.23% of defensive snaps), 78 ST snaps (17.85%), 1 glorious offensive snap (.1%)
  • Key statistics: 41 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery, 1 rush, 1 yard, 1 TD

Kyle Williams was able to experience the postseason for the first time in his career. As happy as I was to break the drought as a selfish fan, I could not even begin to imagine how it must have felt for Williams, who has toiled in the trenches for years without so much as a complaint, managing only to do one thing very well—his job.

In both leadership and actual play, signing Williams for another year would benefit the club. He isn’t the dynamic pass rusher that he once was, nor does he have the same burst that allowed him to wreak havoc on running games and passing games for so many years. But his motor is as strong as ever, and his ability to lead from the front is invaluable to a team trying to build and maintain a winning culture. If he wants to return, he should absolutely be allowed to do so.

Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane both said that they’d like Williams back. Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of number 95, who is almost certain to be a member of the Bills’ Wall of Fame someday after he decides to retire.

Cedric Thornton

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 29 (30 on 6/21/18)
  • Playing time: 387 snaps (34.93% of defensive snaps), 61 ST snaps (13.96%)
  • Key statistics: 27 combined tackles, 2 sacks

The man who made Marcell Dareus expendable is, oddly enough, very expendable himself. Thornton worked his way into the starting lineup after Dareus was traded, and he even started a few games while Dareus was still on the roster; however, he is nowhere near Dareus’s level in terms of overall talent, and he was a liability in the running game.

At 6’4” and 290 pounds, Thornton is one of the more stout anchors the Bills have at the position, but he’s about to turn 30, doesn’t command double teams, and isn’t a threat to make too many game-changing plays by penetrating the offensive backfield. He will most likely be looking for work elsewhere in 2018.

Offseason Outlook

The defensive line is in need of some work, but I think that the interior line is far more dire a need than the edge. At least the Bills have three NFL-caliber defensive ends under contract for next season. It’s arguable that none of the defensive tackles Buffalo currently has under contract would find themselves earning any meaningful snaps in other places. Especially if Williams decides to retire, the Bills are in bad shape up the middle.

The team would be wise to invest heavily in the position, both with free-agent dollars and draft picks. I would not be at all surprised to see the Bills go after some free agent defensive tackles. Sheldon Richardson, Dontari Poe, DaQuan Jones, and Dominique Easley are all free agents, and while the latter two are coming off of injury (a torn biceps for Jones and a torn ACL for Easley), they could still help. Pursuing a familiar force like Star Lotulelei of the Carolina Panthers would be a possibility, as well. Signing a big-name might not be the way the front office wants to play it, but adding someone whose mere presence means that he’ll be double-teamed will only help the rest of the defense to make plays.

The 2018 NFL Draft is loaded with interior defensive linemen, and with the Bills in possession of five of the first 96 picks in April, taking a defensive tackle isn’t out of the question; in fact, it should be a top priority. Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne, Harrison Phillips, Maurice Hurst, and many others could step right into the Bills’ lineup and help the team in starting a new kind of playoff streak next season.