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Buffalo Bills invested heavily in defensive tackle to improve run defense

A huge free agent addition plus a welcome return and respected draft pick have solidified this unit.

Too often in 2017, the Buffalo 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 were in desperate need of upgrades this offseason.

The Bills did that, replacing the traded Marcell Dareus with another big-name free agent, re-signing a team legend, and adding a stud prospect in the middle rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft to overhaul the depth chart.

In our latest training camp preview of the roster, we dissect the defensive tackle position:

Kyle Williams

  • Contract status: Signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract this offseason
  • Age: Turned 35 on 6/10/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 756 snaps (68.23% of defensive snaps), 78 ST snaps (17.85%), 1 glorious offensive snap (.1%)
  • Key 2017 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 in 2017. As happy as we were to break the drought as selfish fans, we 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 benefits 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.

Star Lotulelei

  • Contract status: Signed a five-year, $50 million contract this offseason
  • Age: Will turn 29 on 12/20/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 586 snaps (58.84% of defensive snaps), 82 ST snaps (18.68%)
  • Key 2017 statistics: 25 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 pass defensed, 1 fumble recovery

The real headliner of the group is Lotulelei, who was added this offseason to replace Dareus as the run-stuffing, space-eating defensive tackle that can push a pocket and eat up blockers. While Williams is a penetrating DT, Lotulelei is a mauler and doesn’t share the same stats because of it.

He’s being counted on to keep rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds clean and able to make plays. That’s what he did for current Bills head coach and former Panthers coordinator Sean McDermott when the pair were together in Carolina.

Harrison Phillips

  • Contract status: Signed a slotted four-year, $3,342,040 contract after being drafted
  • Age: Turned 22 on 1/25/96
  • Key 2017 statistics: 98 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries at Stanford

Seen by some as a late first-round prospect, the Bills managed to land the former Stanford Cardinal with their pick in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. While he doesn’t project on the field as Williams’ replacement, he certainly shares the mentality of the veteran defensive tackle.

Phillips had great sack and tackle numbers at Stanford and will certainly get opportunities while spelling Lotulelei as his primary backup. He’ll likely see 40% of the team’s defensive snaps as McDermott likes to send defensive linemen in waves to keep them fresh.

Adolphus Washington

  • Contract status: signed; $848,574 cap hit ($660,000 cap savings if post-6/1 cut)
  • Age: Will turn 24 on 11/24/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 509 snaps (45.94% of defensive snaps), 44 ST snaps (10.07%)
  • Key 2017 statistics: 33 combined tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defended

Heading into the offseason, Adolphus Washington was the best defensive tackle the Bills had under contract for 2018. The second-year man out of Ohio State served as a near-starter for most of the 2017 season after the trade of Dareus, 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, but as a depth rotational player he won’t be very exposed. He is the shiniest spare part in the collection of spare parts behind the top three at the position.

Tenny Palepoi

  • Contract status: signed a non-guaranteed one-year, $705,000 contract this offseason
  • Age: Will turn 24 on 11/24/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 270 snaps (25.76% of defensive snaps), 140 ST snaps (32.63%) for Los Angeles Chargers
  • Key 2017 statistics: 24 combined tackles, 1 sack

Another free agent addition, Palepoi is a depth option for the Bills. He had the best season of his career last year with the Chargers and if he can take the next step, could be a serviceable backup to Kyle Williams. The opportunity is there if he can play well in camp.

Rickey Hatley

  • Contract status: signed; $480,000 cap hit
  • Age: Turned 24 on 3/29/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 25 snaps (2.26% of defensive snaps), 2 ST snaps (.46%)
  • Key 2017 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.

Marquavius Lewis

  • Contract status: signed a two-year, $1.05 million contract this offseason with no guaranteed money
  • Age: will turn 26 on 10/11/18
  • 2017 Playing time: N/A
  • Key 2017 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 defended during the 2017 preseason.

Camp Outlook

The Buffalo Bills invested heavily in the position this offseason and the results set them up for much more success in 2018. A stout lineman to pair with a penetrating defender followed by another stud reserve sets up a great top three in the rotation. If one of the depth players can emerge as a consistent option to take 20% to 40% of the snaps, Buffalo will be in business.

They’ll need to identify a successor to Williams in the near future, but odds are that person isn’t on the roster now. The best battle to watch in training camp will be for the fourth spot in the rotation, but that won’t be the end of the competition. The team kept five defensive tackles last year and seven eventually saw time on the field.