Under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Buffalo Bills have deployed a heavy rotation along the defensive line. While two players have dominated the snaps at their respective positions, they each played far less than they did under McDermott’s predecessor, Rex Ryan.
In 2016, Ryan’s last season as head coach, Jerry Hughes led all Bills edge defenders in snaps, and Kyle Williams led all of Buffalo’s interior defensive linemen in snaps. Hughes played on 856 snaps, or 79.93% of the team’s total, while Williams played on 794 snaps, or 74.14% of the team’s total. Both men also led the Bills in snaps at their respective positions in 2017 and 2018, as well; however, they did so with a reduced workload.
Hughes has played on roughly two-thirds of Buffalo’s defensive snaps since 2017, playing on 735 snaps in 2017 (66.34%) and 668 snaps in 2018 (65.88%). Williams had a similar workload, playing on 756 snaps (68.23%) in 2017 and on 656 snaps (64.69%) in 2018. Under McDermott and Frazier, the starting defensive line group has seen an overall reduction in time, while the reserve group has seen an uptick in playing time. Here is Buffalo’s distribution of defensive-line snaps over the last two seasons:
DE1—Hughes (668; 65.88%)
DT1—Williams (656; 64.69%)
DT2—Lotulelei (475; 46.84%)
DE2—Murphy/Lawson (440; 43.39%)
DE3—Yarbrough (307; 30.28%)
DT3—H.Phillips (389; 38.36%)
DT4—J.Phillips (268; 26.43%)
DE1—Hughes (735; 66.34%)
DT1—Williams (756; 68.23%)
DT2—A.Washington (509; 45.94%)
DE2—Yarbrough (462; 41.7%)
DE3—R.Davis (457; 41.25%)
DT3—Thornton (387; 34.93%)
DT4—Dareus (138; 12.5%)/Coleman (129; 11.64%)/Worthy (115; 10.38%)
DE4—Lawson (436; 39.35%)
Two things jumped out at me right away. First off, man, that was not a good defensive line group in 2017. Neither Ryan Davis nor Cedric Thornton even suited up for an NFL team in 2018, yet they were among Buffalo’s top-line rotation players in 2017. Adolphus Washington managed to play in five games and Marcell Dareus in 15, but it’s amazing that Buffalo squeezed as much as they did out of as little as they had that season.
The other thing that stood out is the percentage of snaps played by the reserves. In 2018, the Bills finally found a grouping that they liked and, as a result, each of the top eight defensive linemen played on at least one quarter of the team’s defensive snaps. If this is the template for 2019, then we should expect that the team will follow that path barring injury.
Speaking of injuries, those have caused the second defensive-end position to be a group effort over the last two seasons. Shaq Lawson dealt with injuries in 2017 and Trent Murphy dealt with them in 2018, leading to a far greater split than I’d imagine the coaching staff wanted. While it seems to be a given that Hughes will lead the defensive ends in snaps, most likely by playing on 66% of them, the race for the second defensive-end spot will be more competitive.
Without Williams along the interior defensive line, the easy guess would be for rookie Ed Oliver to step in and take over most, if not all, of those snaps. However, Jordan Phillips has played with the first team this summer, so if Oliver is going to step up and take those snaps, he’ll have to earn them. Star Lotulelei will probably play around half of the snaps again, with Harrison Phillips playing between 35 and 50 percent as well.
I think most of us imagine a “top-four” defensive line of Hughes, Oliver, Lotulelei, and Murphy, with the second wave including Lawson, both Phillipses, and either Eddie Yarbrough, Eli Harold, or Mike Love. However, there is a possibility that Lawson cracks that top group, especially if Murphy is injured or ineffective, and that seventh-round draft choice Darryl Johnson earns a spot in the second group.
In any case, the Bills will rotate heavily along the defensive line again in order to keep their top unit fresh.