The Buffalo Bills have a lot of money invested in their defensive line. Of their top 11 players in terms of salary-cap hits, six of them are either defensive ends or defensive tackles—or, in the case of newcomer Quinton Jefferson, both. That level of investment shows the importance of the positional group to the defense, but also shows just how much talent the Bills have along the line.
Sure, money spent doesn’t always mean that the funds were spent on a premium player (Langston Walker, anyone?), but it often is a good indication of how much deserving talent a team has at a particular position. When you add the overall investment to the guarantees on those contracts, it gives a pretty clear indication of who will end up on the final roster come September.
In today’s installment of “91 players in 91 days,” we profile one of the defensive ends who doesn’t appear anywhere near the top of the earnings chart—a second-year man looking to expand his role in 2020.
Name: Darryl Johnson Jr.
Height/Weight: 6’6”, 253 lbs.
Age: 23 (24 on 4/4/2021)
Experience/Draft: 2; selected in the seventh round (No. 225 overall) by the Bills in the 2019 NFL Draft
College: North Carolina A&T
Acquired: Seventh-round draft choice
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Johnson enters the second year of his rookie contract, a four-year pact worth a total of $2,618,088, of which $98,088 is guaranteed. For the 2020 season, Johnson carries a cap hit of $699,522 if he makes the 53-man roster. The Bills are on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $73,566 if he is released.
2019 Recap: Johnson made the 53-man roster as a rookie, and he immediately slotted in as the team’s fourth defensive end. Through the first seven games of the season, Johnson was a regular contributor on defense and special teams, as he averaged 20 snaps a game on defense in addition to playing well in excess of half the special teams snaps on a weekly basis. After Buffalo’s 31-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, however, Johnson’s defensive snaps were reduced to almost zero. From Weeks 8-15, Johnson appeared on a total of 24 defensive snaps. He played 62 snaps in the season finale against the New York Jets. Overall, Johnson made 15 tackles, one sack, two tackles for a loss, and two quarterback hits as a rookie. He was an integral part of the team’s kickoff coverage unit, and he appeared on more special teams snaps (277) than anyone other than Julian Stanford.
Positional outlook: Johnson faces plenty of competition for a roster spot, as the Bills have millions invested in his positional group already. Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy return, and while Shaq Lawson departed via free agency, the team added Mario Addison and Quinton Jefferson to the fold. Buffalo also spent the No. 54 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on A.J. Epenesa, further complicating matters regarding Johnson’s place on the roster. Jonathan Woodard, Mike Love, and Bryan Cox Jr. round out the positional group.
2020 Offseason: Nothing new to report.
2020 Season outlook: The defensive line is going to be a highly competitive, interesting group to watch this offseason. Buffalo legitimately has ten players (when counting defensive tackles) who in normal circumstances would be considered solid bets to make the final roster. I think ten is too many, but the Bills have too much talent here to try to cut down to eight...so for these purposes, we’re going to assume that Buffalo keeps nine defensive linemen. The “locks,” whether based on draft pedigree or guaranteed money, appear to be Hughes, Addison, Epenesa, Jefferson, Vernon Butler, Star Lotulelei, and Ed Oliver. The three “moving parts” players are Johnson, Trent Murphy, and Harrison Phillips, and I give them that designation for different reasons. Phillips very well may begin the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list thanks to his recovery from ACL surgery. That would leave Buffalo with nine defensive linemen, but when he’s ready to return, they’d be left with a dilemma about who to release to make room for Phillips. The whole thing could be avoided by releasing Murphy, thereby allowing the Bills to roll $8 million over to next year’s cap. The Bills could also elect to release Johnson and hope that he clears waivers so they can add him to their practice squad. If it were me, I would release Murphy and keep the younger, more athletic option in Johnson over the more savvy veteran. Either way, this positional group is going to be fun to watch all year.