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Replacing Star Lotulelei via free agency won’t necessarily cost Buffalo Bills

Between the dead-cap charge to release Star and the cost to sign a replacement, it will drain Buffalo’s resources

NFL: SEP 09 BILLS AT RAVENS Photo by Icon Sportswire

The Buffalo Bills have a decision to make regarding defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. In short, the Bills have to decide whether to keep Lotulelei on the roster, thereby ensuring that the veteran will count $10.1 million against their 2020 salary cap, or that they should release him to save $2.3 million in cap space.

Of course, in releasing him, the Bills would then have another decision to make—how do they replace him? Even if the team decided that Harrison Phillips is ready to be a starter along the defensive line just under one year removed from ACL surgery, the team deploys a heavy rotation along the defensive line. In releasing Lotulelei, who took right around half of the defensive snaps last season as the 1-tech defensive tackle, Buffalo would open a hole that they would probably be best served filling through free agency.

If the Bills chose to go that route, the list of free-agent defensive tackles who play the “1-tech” spot is not a glamorous one. The Bills would be mad to release Lotulelei, thereby incurring a $7.8 million dead-cap charge, only to go out and sign a player like Javon Hargrave or D.J. Reader, who are outstanding players that Spotrac estimates will come at an average annual value of $14.7 million and $11.9 million, respectively. If Buffalo wants to replace the Star in the middle of their defensive line, they’ll need to be judicious in how they spend to do it.

Here is a brief list of players who could be viewed as realistic targets for the Bills to pursue at 1-tech defensive tackle.

Danny Shelton

Yes, what’s about to follow is essentially a straight cut-and-paste from the article I wrote about replacing Jordan Phillips earlier this offseason, but a common expression we have in my profession (I’m an English teacher in my day job) is “don’t reinvent the wheel.” Shelton is coming off a career year with the New England Patriots, where he made 61 tackles, six quarterback hits, and three sacks on arguably the league’s best defense. As a 1-tech only who offers little in the way of pass-rush ability, Shelton’s overall contract value will be limited. Spotrac estimates that he’ll come at an annual average value of $4.7 million. If you add that total to Lotulelei’s dead cap charge ($7.8 million), you’re essentially replacing Star with a better player at a net cost of $2.4 million on the 2020 salary cap. While I’m not necessarily a proponent of releasing Lotulelei thanks to the guarantees in his contract, this is one situation where I’d be fine with eating the dead money and signing a younger (Shelton doesn’t turn 27 until August), better player.

Michael Pierce

Pierce is an undersized nose with a big-time motor who has played his whole career with the Baltimore Ravens. At 6’ tall and 309 lbs, he isn’t the mammoth that Shelton is, but Pierce has made a good career for himself after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Last year, Pierce played in 14 games, making 35 tackles, half a sack, two tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits. As a member of an outstanding Ravens defense, Pierce was one of the reasons why the team was so good against the run. The Ravens were fifth in the league in rushing defense this year. Pierce’s estimated annual value is the same as Shelton’s, so the same premise applies in terms of signing him while releasing Lotulelei.

Mike Daniels

If the Bills would rather release Lotulelei and take a risk on a veteran coming off some injuries, perhaps at a veteran’s minimum salary, then Daniels could be a player worth targeting. The big defensive lineman has experience playing as a 1-tech, a 3-tech, and a 5-tech in his career—and that versatility would definitely allow head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to mix and match their personnel groupings. However, Daniels has only managed to play 19 games over the last two seasons due to a litany of injuries. He’s missed time thanks to a foot injury and an arm injury over the last two seasons, each of which ended with him on injured reserve.

Tyeler Davison

A former fifth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, Davison played last year with the Atlanta Falcons, and he had a career year. He had 55 tackles, four for loss, two quarterback hits, and one sack in his one year in Atlanta. A stout run defender, Davison is a bigger-framed player (6’2” and 309 lbs) who would make a sound rotational piece for the Bills. At 27 years old, he’s also three years younger than Lotulelei, and he would come at a far lesser cost over the long term. While it can’t all be attributed to Davison, Atlanta’s run defense improved immensely last season from the team’s 2018 numbers. The Falcons were No. 25 in rushing yards against and No. 28 in yards per rush in 2018, but they were No. 15 in rushing yards against and No. 16 in average yards per rush last season. Davison played on 54% of Atlanta’s snaps.

A’Shawn Robinson

Here’s another wheel for y’all. This is another guy who I think is going to end up a bit out of Buffalo’s price range, but he would be a tremendous addition to the defense, both literally and figuratively. He’s 6’4” and 330 lbs, and he has the ability to play as both a 1-tech and a 3-tech—giving him the versatility this coaching staff covets. Robinson was described as being the Detroit Lions’ most improved player on defense by Jeremy Reisman of Pride of Detroit back in July, and Robinson ended up having another solid, if unspectacular, season. He notched 40 tackles, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, and three pass breakups in 13 games this year. At the right price, he’d be a solid rotational piece for the Bills.

Beau Allen

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers boasted the NFL’s best run defense last season, as they allowed only 1,181 yards and 3.3 yards per carry for the season. A dominant defensive line was a big part of the reason why, and while Allen might not have been a huge factor in terms of snaps (he only played 15% of Tampa Bay’s total), his role was definitely to come in and eat blockers so his teammate could stuff the run. The big fella is 6’3” and 327 lbs of pure mass. Plus, his nickname is “The Polar Bear,” which would definitely play better in Buffalo than it does in Tampa Bay.


Which free agent defensive tackle should the Bills sign to replace Star Lotulelei?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Danny Shelton
    (157 votes)
  • 5%
    Michael Pierce
    (41 votes)
  • 1%
    Mike Daniels
    (9 votes)
  • 1%
    Tyeler Davison
    (8 votes)
  • 11%
    A’Shawn Robinson
    (94 votes)
  • 8%
    Beau Allen
    (67 votes)
  • 1%
    Other; specify in comments
    (12 votes)
  • 50%
    None; just keep Lotulelei
    (403 votes)
791 votes total Vote Now

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