If there’s one remaining need on the Buffalo Bills roster after Brandon Beane’s free-agent shopping spree, it’s at defensive tackle. Star Lotulelei gives the team a stout nose tackle, and Harrison and Jordan Phillips are versatile rotational options, but the depth chart is crying for a replacement for team captain Kyle Williams. In 13 seasons, the disruptive Williams notched 48.5 sacks and 103 TFLs from the interior; none of the aforementioned players are building that kind of resume. The best interior disruptor in 2019’s vaunted defensive line class? Arguably, it’s Ed Oliver of the Houston Cougars.
The 6’2”, 280-lb Oliver was a five-star recruit due to his rare blend of speed and power, and he’s exactly as advertised. His first-step explosion is tremendous, and easily in Geno Atkins or Gerald McCoy territory. Combined with a fast reaction to the snap, Oliver can be in the center’s chest before any other defender has taken a step.
As explosive as he is, Oliver is also dangerous because of his tremendous motor. He’s running full-bore on pretty much every play, and that includes chasing runners to the sidelines or upfield. It’s rare to see him jogging on a play.
You might imagine that an undersized defensive tackle would struggle to push the pocket or anchor against the run, but Oliver’s the exception. Houston played him as a zero-technique nose tackle and he took on the thankless task (and the associated double- and triple-teams) with plenty of success. His base is extremely strong for his size, and he does a great job finding the space between two linemen and driving into it, turning them and removing their force.
As another example, check out the clip below. Oliver attacks the center head-on, but Arizona has a left guard barreling into him from the side to try and open a backside gap on the run. It doesn’t move Oliver a step. He anchors against the contact, pushes the center, and creates a tackle for loss.
In terms of pass-rush moves, Oliver’s go-to is definitely the bull rush, reflecting his straightforward and aggressive approach. While I’ve seen the occasional rip, swim, and spin move, they weren’t really strung together into a meaningful combo. Given how frequently he was winning with his first step, Oliver should’ve created even more TFLs, but his less creative rush plan meant that opponents could occasionally plan for him and redirect the force.
Another issue with Oliver’s technique is his stance. We profiled this issue a long (LONG) time ago when discussing Torell Troup, and it affects Oliver, too. He sits in a squat pre-snap, with his back at a 45-degree angle to the ground. This presents two issues—first, he needs to take extra steps to reach an opponent because he immediately pops upright after the snap. Second, it raises his pad level, making it easier for someone to win the leverage battle.
As a 6’2” lineman, Oliver won’t often face pros with lower pads, but well-executed technique can stop his momentum. This was clear against Navy, which uses a run-heavy option offense featuring plenty of cut blocks and combo blocks. Oliver had his moments knifing into the backfield during that game, but he was also frequently blocked out of the way.
Ed Oliver won’t fit every team’s size profile, and the finer points of his technique are still coming along. In spite of those concerns, his tape consistently pops with jaw-dropping feats of athleticism leading to tackles in the backfield. Quinnen Williams is the best all-around defensive tackle prospect in this draft, but Oliver might be the most disruptive. His play-making prowess could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Sean McDermott’s defense.