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The three biggest questions facing the Buffalo Bills defense heading into 2018

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What can we expect from the Bills defense?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We are now less than a week away from the Buffalo Bills’ 2018 Week 1 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. The roster is settled, official game preparation has begun, and all of the questions that have been asked for months on end this offseason will start to be answered on Sunday in Maryland.

These are, in my opinion, the three biggest questions facing the Bills’ defense heading into the 2018 regular season.

Can the secondary keep producing?

The Bills were able to produce enough defensively, in their first year playing under Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier, based largely on the contributions of three of their starting defensive backs: cornerback Tre’Davious White, and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Those three players combined for 14 of the Bills’ 18 interceptions last season, as well as an additional three fumble recoveries and two touchdowns.

They did this despite the fact that the team was unable to produce a consistent pass rush on a weekly basis, which we’ll talk a little bit more about below. Now, these three players form the strong point in a defense that has otherwise seen a pretty significant amount of personnel turnover in its front seven. While other pieces fall into place, the Bills will need White, Hyde, and Poyer to continue their play-making ways.

How quickly can the new Mike assimilate?

Nathan Peterman has afforded the Bills the luxury of (some) time in assimilating Josh Allen to the NFL, but the team has no such luxury when it comes to their other 2018 first-round draft pick, middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. The 20-year-old has been tasked with helming the Bills’ defense as its primary signal-caller right away, and he’ll likely be an every-down player in his rookie season.

Edmunds’ preseason was marked with ups and downs, which is about all that can be expected from a young player in such a giant role. The pressure is only going to ramp up from here. No one doubts Edmunds’ immense physical talents. When he “gets it,” which the Bills will hope happens sooner rather than later, he has an opportunity to be a star in the McDermott/Frazier defense.

Will a consistent pass rush develop?

Sacks are not the true measure of a consistent pass rush, but the Bills’ 2017 season total of 27 sacks was lacking. No individual player had more than 4.0 sacks a year ago, and the Bills haven’t had a defensive lineman record more than 6.0 sacks in a season since 2014, when the trio of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Jerry Hughes were in their heyday.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Bills spent significant free agency dollars trying to improve their defensive line, adding end Trent Murphy (three years, $22.5 million) and tackle Star Lotulelei (five years, $50 million). They also expect to feature third-round defensive tackle Harrison Phillips fairly prominently this year, as well. But Phillips won’t start, Murphy has struggled to stay healthy (and has never recorded a double-digit sack season), and Lotulelei has not built his sterling reputation as a pass rusher.

Hughes will spearhead the Bills’ pass-rushing efforts once again, and remains an underrated edge rusher despite mediocre sack totals (he has just 15 sacks in his last three seasons combined). The Bills are banking on a healthy Murphy, an improved Shaq Lawson, and a more seasoned Eddie Yarbrough helping them generate pressure more consistently, but there are no proven commodities here.

While the Bills attempt to put together a competent offense again, they’re counting on big plays from their defense to keep them afloat. Without a better pass rush, that may be tough to come by.