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State of the Buffalo Bills roster, defensive tackles: an emotional torch passing is complete

A Bills legend is replaced by a highly-touted draft pick.

Throughout the last thirteen seasons, the Buffalo Bills have had one constant presence in the lineup. No matter how bad the team was, Kyle Williams would line up at defensive tackle. In 2019, that will no longer be the case, as the Bills will transition to life without Kyle for the first time since the 2005 season (for those who are curious, Buffalo’s starting defensive tackles that season were Sam Adams and Tim Anderson. Justin Bannan and Ron Edwards also made starts that year).

Whenever a team loses a player of Williams’s stature, the season after is a difficult one with regard to finding replacements. The Bills had to remake the position, and they did so with their largest asset of the offseason.

In the latest look at the state of the Bills roster, we look at the defensive tackle position.

Ed Oliver

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed his four-year rookie deal this year; $3.557 million cap hit
  • Age: 21 (22 on 12/12/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 8 games for University of Houston
  • Key 2018 statistics: 54 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble for University of Houston

A disruptive force on the inside, expectations for Oliver are sky-high. A potential top-three pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Oliver slid to Buffalo at pick nine and general manager Brandon Beane couldn’t have been happier. He fills an immediate void at 3-tech defensive tackle left by the retirement of Williams and he has the potential to be one of the best penetrating DTs in the entire league within a couple years. He’s a perfect fit for Sean McDermott’s defense.

Star Lotulelei

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $11.5 million cap hit ($12.4 million dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 29 (30 on 12/20/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 475 snaps (46.84% of defensive total), 75 ST snaps (17.08%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 17 tackles, 1 tackles for loss, 1 pass defended

It’s tough to evaluate someone like Lotulelei based solely on statistics, as so much of his job involves freeing other players to accumulate statistics of their own. At $11.5 million, his is the second-highest salary cap number on the Bills’ roster in 2019, and the contract is structured in such a way that makes it foolish to move on from him, likely until after the 2020 season. Not that I think they need to, however, as Lotulelei did exactly what he was supposed to do last year. He ate blockers in front of rookie Tremaine Edmunds, and he prevented quarterbacks from stepping up into huge pockets, which was a big problem for the Bills in 2017. Buffalo’s run defense improved in 2018, as well—the Bills were 16th in the league last year, allowing 114.9 yards per game, an improvement from 124.6 per game over 2017, which ranked 29th.

Jordan Phillips

  • Contract status for 2019: Re-signed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal this offseason
  • Age: 26 (27 on 9/21/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 12 games (0 starts), 268 snaps (26.43% of defensive total), 47 ST snaps (10.71%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 19 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 3 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery

Phillips was claimed off waivers from the Miami Dolphins prior to Buffalo’s Week 5 tilt against the Tennessee Titans, and he made an immediate impact with the team in 2018. Phillips was a ball of energy from the start, and he did a great job eating space and helping to give Lotulelei a rest at various points throughout games. A former second-round pick, Phillips flamed out in Miami due to issues of work ethic, but he seemed to revel in the second chance he received in Buffalo. The Bills hedged their bets with Phillips in two ways; they signed him to a one-year deal to keep him motivated and they used his signing as insurance in case they couldn’t land a top DT prospect.

Harrison Phillips

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $802,760 cap hit ($581,280 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: Turned 23 on 1/25/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (0 starts), 389 snaps (38.36% of defensive snaps), 78 ST snaps (17.77%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 35 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 QB hits, 1 fumble recovered

Phillips turned out to be a very good draft choice by the Bills, as the former Stanford Cardinal stepped into a rotational role right away during his rookie season. Phillips was just as productive as Williams in terms of overall tackles, as each player had the same number on the year. The big difference in their numbers came in the form of quarterback hits, as Williams had 14 compared to two for Phillips. Phillips will be part of the defensive line rotation in 2019, and with how much McDermott likes to rotate guys on his defensive line, he’ll get a considerable amount of playing time.

Kyle Peko

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed to one-year contract; $645,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
  • Age: 25 (26 on 7/23/19)
  • 2018 playing time: N/A
  • Key 2018 statistics: N/A

Peko is the younger cousin of veteran nose tackle Domata Peko, currently of the Denver Broncos. Kyle Peko does not have the size or the pedigree of his older cousin, but he does possess solid athleticism for the position. He joined the Bills in September, signing with the team’s practice squad after his release from the Broncos’ practice squad. He has appeared in seven games during his NFL career, totaling eight tackles in the process.

Robert Thomas

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed to one-year contract; $645,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
  • Age: Turned 28 on 2/19/19
  • 2018 playing time: 2 games (0 starts), 17 snaps (1.68% of defensive total)
  • Key 2018 statistics: N/A

Thomas was called up from the practice squad for Buffalo’s games against the Los Angeles Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively. He did not contribute much to the roster, but he did allow cornballs like Skarekrow and I to make plenty of Matchbox Twenty puns for a few weeks.

L.T. Walton

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed to three-year contract; $645,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
  • Age: Turned 27 on 3/31/2019
  • 2018 playing time: 4 games (0 starts), 52 snaps (4.98% of defensive snaps), 4 snaps (0.87% of special teams snaps)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 1 pass defended, 2 tackles for Pittsburgh Steelers

Walton played defensive end for the Steelers’ three-man front, and slots in as a penetrating defensive tackle for Buffalo’s four-man defensive front. He played 16 games for Pittsburgh two years ago, so he’s more than just a throwaway camp body, but he fell out of favor before being released.

Positional Outlook

Buffalo had a huge hole entering the offseason but re-signed Phillips, then drafted Oliver, then signed Walton to round out the group. It’s a solid position grouping from top to bottom and they’ve allocated lots of resources to get there. If this group disappoints, it could hinder all of Buffalo’s defensive plans. If this group (and especially Oliver) hits big, it could be the engine that drives the defense as a whole.