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Predicting the Buffalo Bills’ defensive end rotation

We take our best guess at what the plan is for defensive ends in 2018

To say the 27 sacks the Buffalo Bills earned in 2017 was disappointing would be an understatement. Pass rushing woes were well documented in a season where the defense as a whole was considered to have significantly overachieved. The Bills have already made two additions to the defensive end position with the aim of righting the “hit the QB” ship, signing Trent Murphy and Owa Odighizuwa during free agency. They also signed defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to push the pocket.

At defensive end, the Bills now have: Jerry Hughes, Nordly “Cap” Capi, Owa Odighizuwa, Trent Murphy, Shaq Lawson, Eddie Yarbrough, Marquavius Lewis

Let’s cut to the chase and get right to the prediction, then dive into the analysis of how we landed here:

Right Defensive End (Blindside)

  • Jerry Hughes, 65% of defensive snaps
  • Eddie Yarbrough, 30%
  • Misc rotation, 5%

Left Defensive End

  • Trent Murphy, 60% of defensive snaps
  • Shaq Lawson, 25%
  • Misc rotation, 15%

General thoughts and guiding principles

The Bills were consistent with defensive line rotations throughout 2017. Even top end starters like Williams and Hughes struggled to break the 70% wall. Hughes presents our best baseline for defensive ends and played 66% of the time. Prior to injury, Shaq Lawson saw very similar playing time on the opposite side. It’s a safe bet that an approximate two-thirds rule is the ideal for Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier. This was used to set the upper limit for the two primary starters.

For each side, the coaches loved having a strict one-two punch whenever possible. When both players were healthy, Shaq Lawson and Ryan Davis’s snap totals most often total 100% for example. Jerry Hughes and Eddie Yarbrough had a similar relationship.

The coaches weren’t afraid to tinker and make adjustments this past season and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue this trend. Nordly Capi saw drastic fluctuations we’ll get to soon. Similary, when Lawson was hurt it wasn’t a strict “next man up” philosophy. This trend is the main reason for the “miscellaneous rotation” numbers above.

Player-specific thoughts

  • Jerry Hughes: Unless they get rid of Hughes (for what better be a darn good reason if they do), this is the easiest one on the list. They showed their hand last year and there’s no reason to think anything should change with their best player in the group.
  • Trent Murphy: The injury or PED concerns could be more significant than expected, but Murphy has been better than Lawson and I fully expect him to take over on the left side. Murphy has graded well in run support and has decent ability to cover in the passing game. Snap counts are lower than Hughes as I think they use this side of the field to tinker more than the right side. It wouldn't be shocking if they ease him in at first due to last year’s injury. The fact that he’s being paid like a starter makes things a bit clearer too.
  • Shaq Lawson: Unless Lawson really puts it together this year, this could be his last hurrah in Buffalo. He’s the primary backup in the prediction because he beat out Yarbrough and Davis last year with the same coaching staff. I wouldn’t be surprised if they want to see how he does on the right side filling in on some of that “misc rotation.”
  • Eddie Yarbrough: Yarbrough primarily was Hughes’ backup last year. When Lawson went down, it was Yarbrough who saw the largest increase in playing time however. The coaches had Yarbrough as their clear number three.
  • Cap Capi: Brought in after the Lawson injury, Capi hit the field about one-third of the time, which suggests they have trust in him. This was stable for the four weeks he played. He started off seeing regular special teams work (also about one-third of the time), which was dropped significantly in the final two games of the regular season. The Bills relied on five players in this group for most of the year which puts Capi on the inside following the release of Ryan Davis.
  • Owa Odighizuwa: Owa seems like he was a cheap gamble to find a role player. I’m not confident it works out in the end. Odighizuwa gave poor returns with the Giants, spent the last year away from the game, and had his own PED suspension. Likely he’s fighting Capi for a spot.
  • Marquavius Lewis: Spending a good chunk of the year on the practice squad, Lewis is generally thought of as being stronger in run support. He signed a reserve contract which means he’s a safe bet for the 90-man roster. Lewis likely has an uphill battle for the 53, but it’s clear the team sees some potential. With a second year of development there’d be no surprise seeing his name rise above Capi and Odighizuwa.

Wild cards

  • Lorenzo Alexander: The team has been shopping for linebackers, but the suspect depth and lack of urgency compared to other positions suggests they’re not dead set on upgrading any one player at the moment. There was talk among fans about having Alexander moving to defensive end to take advantage of his skill set there. The Murphy signing seems to make this unlikely. The addition of Star Lotulelei should open things for the linebackers to clean up. Murphy provides better run and pass coverage on the left side than the Bills had at the position last year as well, making for what could be an excellent pairing with Alexander.
  • Rookie, free agent, or trade: The Bills look to have their eggs firmly in the Murphy basket for now. Additionally, they won’t know if Murphy will pan out until it’s too late to use a high pick on a rusher. If another guy is picked up later (draft, free agent or trade) it’s probably competition at the depth level.