Sean McDermott isn’t giving Buffalo Bills rookie defensive tackle Ed Oliver anything just yet. At least according to comments by the head coach, it appears Oliver will have to earn his spot.
On Thursday McDermott told reporters that the ninth-overall pick from Houston still has “a long way to go”.
“He’s a rookie and this is his first real day of practice. It’s a journey so it just takes some time,” said McDermott. “He’ll have to go through really everything that the rookies go through in terms of getting themselves acclimated to the NFL. There’s a jump. There’s a gap between major college football even in the NFL, so he’s got a long way to go right now.”
Not exactly encouraging words for a player who many foresaw as an immediate starter on a Bills’ front four alongside Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei.
Indeed, reports out of training camp indicated that Oliver was working with the second-team defense along with Harrison Phillips.
Second-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, selected 16th overall in 2018, seemed to echo McDermott’s sentiments.
“He’s moving around good. You know, he’s a rookie so he’s got a lot to learn but you know, the things that I see, he does a good job. But like I said he still has a lot of room to grow,” said Edmunds.
Oliver achieved star player status throughout a decorated career at Houston. He was an immediate starter as a freshman and won the Outland trophy (college football’s top interior lineman) as a sophomore, taking first-team All-American honors in all three of his college seasons.
However, two variables are at play that could prevent Oliver from starting on opening week against the New York Jets. First, McDermott has made notable rookie players earn their status in the past. Second, the play of 2018 pickup Jordan Phillips has thrown a wrench into Oliver’s plans.
A couple recent examples of noted rookies being forced to wait their turn come to mind. Truthfully, many Bills fans didn’t feel Josh Allen was ready to be the opening-day starter in 2018 and McDermott didn’t either. That turned into the forgettable Nathan Peterman fiasco. Mercifully, McDermott and Beane were forced to turn over the keys to Allen.
Perhaps a more sensible example is Matt Milano, originally a fifth-round pick who lost the 2017 starting weak side linebacker job to Ramon Humber before taking it over in October. Today Milano is an undeniably stable force on the Bills defense, and a fan favorite in Orchard Park.
However, cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds were both immediate starters in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
The bigger variable at play is likely the emergence of former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Phillips, an immensely talented man with a massive frame. Phillips’s Achilles heel has been his emotional conduct, particularly during a pair of late-game plays at Miami that all but derailed a Bills’ comeback. But those boneheaded plays came right after dazzling tackles for losses against his former team.
Phillips joined the Bills in early October and piled up 12 tackles and a pair of tackles for losses. He possesses the talent to be a mainstay defensive tackle in the NFL, particularly when he’s playing with motivation. Self-control is another discussion. At least for now, it looks like he has an inside edge over Oliver for the starting spot.
Interestingly, while Oliver was taking second-team reps, fellow rookie Cody Ford was seen taking first-team reps on the offensive line.
Still, investing a ninth-overall pick on a defensive lineman typically indicates a desire to see said player produce dividends immediately. Oliver’s front-loaded rookie contract will see him collect $12.7 million during the first year of a healthy four-year, $19.5 million deal.
It wouldn’t be the first time a coaching staff chose not to start a rookie defensive lineman. But it seems more rare in a modern NFL world where young, rookie superstars are the marketing centerpieces of entire franchises. And to be fair, we’re not even close to being there yet. Even if he’s not the starter, the backups on the defensive line rotated in on around 40% of the snaps a year ago.