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91 players in 91 days: Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei

The lightning rod returns on a restructured deal

Wild Card Round - Buffalo Bills v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have one of the league’s best defenses, but it’s fairly well accepted that the team’s pass defense is better than its rush defense. While the team improved tremendously against the run last year, Buffalo still allowed opponents to average 4.3 yards per rush, which was only 18th in the league.

It’s a nice feeling to be able to nitpick about the Bills “only” being right around league-average in a defensive category, but it’s really the last weak spot in Buffalo’s defensive armor. The team overhauled its defensive line group this offseason, but most of the main players from last year figure to have prominent roles once again this year.

In today’s installment of “91 players in 91 days,” we profile the highest-paid defensive tackle on the team’s roster.

Name: Star Lotulelei
Number: 98
Position: DT
Height/Weight: 6’2”, 315 lbs.
Age: 30 (31 on 12/20/2020)
Experience/Draft: 8; selected in the first round (No. 14 overall) by the Carolina Panthers in the 2013 NFL Draft
College: Utah
Acquired: Signed with Bills on 3/15/18

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Lotulelei restructured his five-year, $50 million contract this offseason, accepting a slight pay cut in exchange for more guaranteed money (we wrote about it back in February when the deal was announced). Lotulelei was set to count $10.1 million against the 2020 salary cap, but now he’ll count $8.1 million. That revised figure is still the seventh-highest on the roster. Buffalo would owe more money in the form of a dead-cap charge ($15.3 million) if they were to release him than they do by keeping him, so a release isn’t happening. They could trade him and owe just $8.3 million in dead money.

2019 Recap: Lotulelei had a more productive season from a statistical standpoint in 2019 than he did in 2018, but his numbers were still incredibly modest overall. The big defensive tackle made 19 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits, one pass deflection, and one pretty awesome interception. He isn’t paid to rack up sexy stats, though—his job is to eat blockers and space so that Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, and other players can operate freely, so it’s awfully difficult to explain what he does via his statistics. It’s still great to hear how dejected Emmitt Smith sounds when Lotulelei makes that catch, though.

Positional outlook: Lotulelei figures to be among Buffalo’s top four defensive tackles, with Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips reprising their roles in the top end of the rotation. Newcomer Vernon Butler, Lotulelei’s teammate for a time with the Carolina Panthers, should be in that group, as well, with fellow free-agent signing Quinton Jefferson doing double-duty as a defensive tackle and a defensive end. Vincent Taylor rounds out the defensive tackle group.

2020 Offseason: Nothing new to report here.

2020 Season outlook: Lotulelei will almost certainly be on the roster come September, though how much he plays is a real question mark. Last year, it appeared that the Bills were giving Harrison Phillips more snaps, but an ACL injury kept the team from fully handing him the reins to the “one-tech” defensive tackle spot occupied by Lotulelei. Excluding the Week 17 game where most starters rested, Lotulelei averaged only 32 snaps per game, or less than half of the team’s snaps. With Butler able to play both the one-tech and the three-tech, even if Phillips is unable to play at the start of the season thanks to recovery from his ACL tear, it’s likely that the Bills will limit Lotulelei’s snaps in a similar fashion. The big man will continue to eat space in the middle for the Bills for at least this season.