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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Defensive tackles

Buffalo has some decisions to make at a position of strength

NFL: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills are in offseason mode, so that means we’re in offseason mode, as well. One of the first things we do when entering the offseason is also one of the first things that general manager Brandon Beane, head coach Sean McDermott, and their respective staffs will do, which is evaluate the roster.

When discussing Buffalo’s roster, there are certain positional groups that can obviously be noted as those that are strong, and a few others that most fans would agree are in need of improvement. Thankfully, with the roster upheaval over the last few years, there are no positional groups so lacking in talent as to be considered an overall disaster (think the receiver position at this time last year, or even the offensive line, for example).

Not only are the Bills healthier in terms of the players on the roster, but the team also finds itself in a phenomenal financial situation. Buffalo has nearly $90 million in salary cap space heading into the offseason, and that’s before factoring in potential veteran cuts (foreshadowing, perhaps?).

In the first of our articles examining the state of the Bills roster, we look at one of the deeper groups on the team, the defensive tackles. Even with all the talent here, however, Buffalo has quite a few decisions to make before the start of next season.

Jordan Phillips

Contract status for 2020: Unrestricted free agent

Age: 27 (28 on 9/21/2020)

Playing time: 16 games, 9 starts, 543 defensive snaps (52.4%); 47 ST snaps (11.4%)

Key statistics: 31 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, 1 forced fumble

Of the decisions Buffalo has to make at defensive tackle, whether to retain Phillips or allow him to leave via free agency might be the most interesting. The Bills claimed Phillips off waivers in October of 2018 after the former second-round pick was let go by the Miami Dolphins. In 48 games in Miami, Phillips totaled 63 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and 17 quarterback hits in an underwhelming series of performances. With Buffalo, however, Phillips played like a man possessed, as the change of scenery really did him well. Phillips compiled 50 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and 16 quarterback hits in only 28 games with Buffalo. After his big 2019 campaign, Phillips is set to cash in a sizable payday. Will it be with Buffalo? That remains to be seen.

Corey Liuget

Contract status for 2020: Unrestricted free agent

Age: 29 (30 on 3/18/2020)

Playing time: 7 games, 0 starts, 134 defensive snaps (12.9%), 10 ST snaps (2.4%)

Key statistics: 10 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB hit

Buffalo signed the veteran defensive tackle mid-season, and he ended up playing well within the rotation upon joining the team. He saw his first action for Buffalo in Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns, playing in right around 25% of the team’s defensive snaps. That’s the number he saw for most contests, excluding Buffalo’s Week 17 loss to the New York Jets, where he played on right around half of the team’s snaps. Liuget is a solid veteran player with a first-round pedigree. He fit right in as a valuable rotation piece for the end of the season.

Ed Oliver

Contract status for 2020: Signed; year two of rookie deal ($4,446,626 cap hit, $16,007,855 dead cap charge if cut)

Age: 22 (23 on 12/12/2020)

Playing time: 16 games, 7 starts, 556 defensive snaps (53.7%), 16 ST snaps (3.9%)

Key statistics: 43 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 8 QB hits, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble

Through nine games, Oliver was off to a slightly disappointing start in terms of statistics. He had 20 tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and four quarterback hits in that time, and he also lost his starting job to Jordan Phillips. Whether that benching was meant to light a fire under Oliver or not, that’s exactly what happened in the season’s second half. Oliver had 23 tackles, four sacks, four tackles for loss, and four quarterback hits in Buffalo’s last seven regular season games, which would have put him on pace for 32 tackles, 9 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 9 quarterback hits over a 16-game season. Oliver was hard to handle all year, as his athleticism shone through as a three-tech in his rookie year. Buffalo found a great player at No. 9 overall last year, and he should anchor the middle of the defense for a long time.

Star Lotulelei

Contract status for 2020: Signed; third year, of five year, $50 million contract ($10.1 million cap hit; $7.8 million dead cap charge if cut)

Age: 30 (31 on 12/20/2020)

Playing time: 16 games, 16 starts, 482 defensive snaps (46.5%), 46 ST snaps (11.1%)

Key statistics: 19 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 1 pass breakup

Another of the big decisions Buffalo has to make at defensive tackle is with respect to Lotulelei, whose cap hit is the second-highest on the team next year. A one-tech defensive tackle isn’t going to rack up stats, so it’s hard to judge Lotulelei by traditional measures. Buffalo’s run defense improved on the whole, as they gave up fewer yards overall; however, they did allow a bit more yardage in terms of per-carry average (4.3 yards per carry this year; 4.2 yards per carry last year). Obviously, that can’t all be placed on the (exceptionally large) shoulders of Lotulelei, but his main goal is to ensure that Buffalo’s linebackers stay clean when pressing the running game. There will be some debate, at least between Bills fans, as to whether or not Lotulelei will stick around next year.

Vincent Taylor

Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of two year, $1,380,000 contract

Age: 26 (27 on 1/5/2021)

Playing time: 3 games, 0 starts

Key statistics: 6 tackles, 1 tackles for loss, 1 pass breakup

Taylor did a nice job in limited duty, as he earned a call-up from the practice squad due to some injuries in the middle of the season. With Harrison Phillips expected to return next year, it’s unlikely that Taylor is on the active roster again (unless Buffalo decides to part ways with Lotulelei), but he will be good insurance against injury until a decision has to be made.

Harrison Phillips

Contract status for 2020: Signed; third year of rookie deal ($891,760 cap hit; $387,520 dead cap charge if cut)

Age: 23 (24 on 1/25/2020)

Playing time: 3 games, 0 starts, 77 defensive snaps (7.4%), 7 ST snaps (1.7%)

Key statistics: 3 tackles, 2 pass breakups, .5 sacks, 1 QB hit

Buffalo’s third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft had a promising rookie season, and he was doing a nice job in the early portion of his second year before suffering a torn ACL against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3. Phillips is one of the best personalities on the roster, and his work ethic is a huge part of the reason why I expect that he’ll come back ready to roll next year.

Positional Outlook

Really, there are two big questions to be answered here: What happens with Jordan Phillips? Do the Bills cut Star Lotulelei? Looking into my crystal ball, I think that Phillips has earned the right to test the market and see if he can snag a big payday. I think he will—and it won’t be from the Bills. It would be hard to justify paying another defensive tackle the kind of salary I expect he’ll command on the open market. Buffalo already has two top-20 defensive tackle contracts in Lotulelei (ninth) and Oliver (18th). I don’t think they’ll add a third.

Speaking of Lotulelei, it makes sense to hold on to him for now, with the caveat that any additional players brought into the fold could change the team’s plans. Sure, he is highly paid, but he eats blocks well and the defense continues to improve. With so much cap space, there’s no sense in creating a massive dead-money hit when you don’t need to. If Buffalo decides to cut him after the 2020 season, however, the dead-cap charge drops from $7.8 million to $5.2 million, which is a more palatable number.

The Bills would be wise to look into adding a sound rotational piece rather than a big name. Even re-signing someone like Liuget, who can play well in short bursts, would be a good move both from a financial standpoint and a personnel standpoint. If I were Brandon Beane, I’d allow Phillips to walk, I’d look into re-signing Liuget at a small cost, and perhaps I’d even scour the free-agent market for some undervalued rotational pieces just in case. I would not cut Lotulelei, and at worst, I’d go into 2020 with a top four of Star, Oliver, H. Phillips, and Liuget. That’s a pretty solid grouping overall.