The Buffalo Bills needed to improve against the run in 2018. Following a 2017 campaign where they allowed an average of 4.3 yards per carry to go with 22 rushing touchdowns, the team made shoring up its run defense a priority. Was that aim successful?
Well, the Bills did improve, albeit slightly. They allowed an average of 4.2 yards per carry, and they limited the number of allowed rushing touchdowns to 17 last season. While they allowed 121 first downs via the run in 2017, they allowed 111 in the 2018 season. Clearly, the team still has some room for improvement against the rush, but head coach Sean McDermott, general manager Brandon Beane, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier believe that they have the pieces in place to continue improving.
In the latest installment of “90 players in 90 days,” we focus on the literal and figurative centerpiece of Buffalo’s defense.
Name: Star Lotulelei
Height/Weight: 6’2” 315 lbs.
Age: 29 (30 on 12/20/19)
Acquired: Signed with Bills on 3/13/18
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Lotulelei enters the second year of a massive five-year contract he signed last offseason. The total worth of the contract is $50 million, of which $24.65 million is guaranteed. His cap hit this year is the second-highest hit on the team at $11.5 million, trailing only fellow defensive lineman Jerry Hughes. Lotulelei’s cap hit is the seventh-highest in the league, one ahead of Grady Jarrett and one behind Fletcher Cox. Given the dead cap charge of $18.55 million, it would be impractical financially for the Bills to release him even if they wanted to do so.
2018 Recap: From a statistical standpoint, Lotulelei had an awful season. While he did play in all 16 games, he managed only 17 tackles, one of which went for a loss, and one pass deflection as his entire statistical output. He appeared on 46.84% of the team’s defensive snaps. Lotulelei plays a position that isn’t known for players accruing great statistics, however, so it’s important to note that his main goal—freeing up middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to make plays—appeared to be a success, as Edmunds led the team in tackles (121) as a barely-21-year-old rookie.
Positional outlook: Lotulelei is among Buffalo’s top four at the defensive tackle position, sharing that honor with Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips, and Jordan Phillips. L.T. Walton, Kyle Peko, and Robert Thomas round out the positional group.
2019 Offseason: Lotulelei has participated in all offseason activities to date, running exclusively with the starting defense.
2019 Season outlook: Lotulelei has been a bit of a lightning rod since signing in Buffalo, as his price tag doesn’t seem to match up with his production. However, as more of a space-eater than penetrator, his numbers are bound to look bad when compared to other defensive tackles. His job isn’t to put up numbers; his job is to ensure that others have the chance to put up numbers (as an aside, that’s part of what makes Ted Washington’s career in Buffalo so incredible—check out his 1996 stats!). Lotulelei’s place on the roster is as safe as anyone’s. If Edmunds and the run defense continue to improve, Star will be a big factor, even if he doesn’t earn the counting stats himself.