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Buffalo Bills training camp state of the roster: Defensive tackle

Some big changes at defensive tackle this offseason.

The Buffalo Bills need to replace snaps from veteran Jordan Phillips, who left for the Arizona Cardinals after a great season rushing the passer, as well as Lorenzo Alexander, who retired after splitting time between defensive tackle and linebacker. On top of that, Ed Oliver is entering his second NFL season ready to make a big impact.

In our latest article 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.

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)
2019 Playing time: 16 games, 7 starts, 556 defensive snaps (53.7%), 16 ST snaps (3.9%)
Key 2019 statistics: 43 tackles, 5 tackles for a 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 a 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 a loss, and four quarterback hits in Buffalo’s last seven regular-season games, which would have put him on pace for 32 tackles, nine sacks, nine tackles for a loss, and nine 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: Restructured his deal this offseason, taking a pay cut ($8.1 million cap hit; $15.1 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 30 (31 on 12/20/2020)
2019 Playing time: 16 games, 16 starts, 482 defensive snaps (46.5%), 46 ST snaps (11.1%)
Key 2019 statistics: 19 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 1 pass breakup

Lotulelei took a $2 million pay cut to stick around in 2020. With Phillips coming off a torn ACL, it was the right move to solidify the position. 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.

Vincent Taylor

Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of two-year, $1,380,000 contract
Age: Turned 26 on 1/5/2020
2019 Playing time: 3 games, 0 starts
Key 2019 statistics: 6 tackles, 1 tackle for a 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, it’s unlikely that Taylor is on the active roster again, 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: Turned 24 on 1/25/2020
2019 Playing time: 3 games, 0 starts, 77 defensive snaps (7.4%), 7 ST snaps (1.7%)
Key 2019 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 in 2020.

Vernon Butler

Contract status for 2020: Signed a two-year deal this offseason with a potential out in 2021 ($7,118,750 cap hit in 2020; $7.8 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 26 (turned 26 on 6/14/2020)
2019 Playing time: 14 games, 9 starts for Carolina Panthers, 440 defensive snaps (40%), 78 special teams snaps (16%)
Key 2019 statistics: 32 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles

Butler was a former first-round pick who underperformed in Carolina. But he’s worked with head coach Sean McDermott and DL coach Eric Washington and they know him and his work ethic. If he can return to his pre-draft form, Buffalo might get a steal in the veteran.

Positional Outlook

It’s a bit surprising Buffalo doesn’t have more depth at this position, specifically an undrafted free agent or similar young player. It’s a little thinner than they have been in the past so look for an additional rostered player at some point.

Oliver should step into the lion’s share of the 3-tech snaps, replacing Phillips, but who is going to back him up? It’s likely that the Bills will lean on two players we profiled in the defensive end article; rookie A.J. Epenesa and veteran Quinton Jefferson, who played a similar role in Seattle a year ago. The versatility of those two players will stand in for the versatility of Alexander in the interior pass rush.

At the 1-tech, Phillips will take over as the starter when he’s healthy. He had already established himself in that spot a year ago, but that could take a month or two of the season coming back from ACL surgery. Lotulelei is a solid replacement to have.

Beyond that, it’s hard to see Buffalo keeping more than four defensive tackles with the versatility and help of those defensive ends we mentioned. Oliver, Lotulelei, Phillips, and the winner of the Butler/Taylor battle will likely be the only four. (We’re guessing it will be Butler.)