The Buffalo Bills have one the deepest defensive line groups in the NFL. That depth was tested early, as defensive tackle Star Lotulelei became the first Buffalo player to opt out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. On many teams, losing a starting defensive lineman could be a crushing blow to the unit. For the Bills, it’s next man up.
While the loss of a defensive tackle may not seem like it would influence the defensive end position, in the case of the Bills, it just might. General manager Brandon Beane’s emphasis on versatile players has allowed the Bills to stockpile a few hybrid linemen, both of the cross-positional variety (DE vs. DT) and of the multiple-technique variety (one-tech vs. three-tech).
Buffalo currently has 13 defensive linemen, minus Lotulelei, on the roster, with eight of those players listed as defensive ends. Which defensive ends will make the final cut? Let’s discuss.
Jefferson is listed as a defensive lineman, but we’re going to discuss him in this case as a roster lock given his ability to factor into the defensive end rotation. All four of these players are locked in for 2020 based on either contract or draft position. Addison and Jefferson each signed pretty big free-agent deals just months ago, so they aren’t going anywhere. Addison would cost more on the 2020 salary cap off the roster ($13.25 million) than he would on it ($9.9 million).
Hughes is another player whose contract indicates that he’s safe. The longest-tenured member of the team counts $9.5 million against the cap, but he counts $11.35 million against it if Buffalo releases him. Even after a 2019 season that was one of Hughes’s worst statistically, he isn’t going anywhere. Hughes had multiple offseason surgeries, as well, so a return to full health could mean a better 2020. Teams don’t cut their first draft pick in his first training camp, so Epenesa isn’t going anywhere, either.
The Longest Shot
Woodard has appeared in six career games, all in 2018 with the Miami Dolphins, and he is definitely behind some of the other names on Buffalo’s roster. At 6’5” and 271 lbs, Woodard fits the mold of a Buffalo defensive end, but he’s more a candidate for the team’s practice squad than anything else.
Darryl Johnson Jr.
Bryan Cox Jr.
Murphy and Hughes each had similar numbers last season, so it comes down to finances as to why Murphy is considered a guy battling for his job and Hughes is safe. Buffalo could save $8.025 million towards the 2021 salary cap by releasing Murphy. With Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano, and Dion Dawkins all in need of contract extensions in the near future, that money could mean retaining one (or more) of those franchise cornerstones just by cutting Murphy, who figures to play between one-third and one-half of the defensive snaps this season.
Johnson did little on defense last season, but he was a mainstay on special teams as one of Buffalo’s top players on the kickoff coverage unit. Coming from a small school, the coaches knew that Johnson would need time to develop, and they kept him on the roster last year rather than sending him to the practice squad. Johnson averaged 20 defensive snap per game through the first seven weeks, but he found his numbers cut dramatically after that—he only played in a total of 24 defensive snaps over the next eight games before playing 62 defensive snaps in the season finale. Johnson is a superb athlete and a strong special teams presence, but his technique and overall repertoire at defensive end is still lacking.
Love made seven tackles in the 2018 preseason, and while he was released at the end of the preseason that year, he was signed to Buffalo’s practice squad in early September. He made his NFL debut in December, playing in Buffalo’s final three games and notching five tackles. Last year, Love made four tackles in the preseason, but he was placed on injured reserve on August 28 thanks to an injury he suffered against the Detroit Lions. Love is a “worker bee” who doesn’t have great size or burst, but he has plenty of experience in the defense.
Cox Jr. has a very recognizable name and a connection to new defensive line coach Eric Washington. At 6’3” and 270 lbs he, too, fits the mold of head coach Sean McDermott’s preference at defensive end—he’s stout enough to anchor versus the run and savvy enough to rush the passer—but he hasn’t had as much NFL success as Murphy. Cox Jr. played in seven games with two teams (the Carolina Panthers and the Cleveland Browns), notching 14 tackles and half a sack on the year.
Darryl Johnson Jr.
Bryan Cox Jr.
I’ve been in the “cut Trent Murphy” camp for the majority of the offseason, but with Lotulelei opting out, I don’t think I would want to see the Bills lose another veteran lineman. How does a one-tech defensive tackle influence the Bills’ decision at edge rusher? With Buffalo’s versatility along the defensive line, they’ll have the ability to mix and match based on situation. If the team keeps nine defensive linemen, minus Lotulelei, it would look like this in my scenario:
DT: Vernon Butler/Ed Oliver/Harrison Phillips
That feels a little light at defensive tackle, right? Well, the other option is that Buffalo would release a defensive end in order to force a defensive tackle on the roster—Vincent Taylor, in this case—who isn’t as talented as the other players. If Phillips isn’t entirely recovered from his ACL surgery, which is a distinct possibility, they may have to keep Taylor on the roster anyway, with Phillips starting the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
By keeping Murphy and Johnson, that kicks Jefferson inside more often. It allows the team to keep a standout on special teams while also keeping a rotational piece at defensive end who, while overpaid, gives Buffalo a great second-wave pass rush. Toss in the fact that Epenesa can play defensive tackle, and the Bills have a second player who can kick inside on pass downs.
Cox Jr. is a dark-horse candidate here, as his connection to the team’s defensive line coach will almost certainly help him in his quest for a roster spot. Ultimately, I think Buffalo will choose to go in another direction. Could the team cut Johnson and try to sneak him on the practice squad? They could, and if he makes it there, they could choose to protect him from being signed by other teams based on the NFL’s updated practice squad rules. However, they’d have to expose him to waivers first, and that’s not something the team was willing to risk last year, so I don’t think they’ll be willing to risk it this year, either.
For my money, I think Phillips starts the year on the PUP list, and the Bills go with nine defensive linemen (the listing above with Taylor swapped in for Phillips). When Harry is ready to roll, they release Taylor and try to re-sign him to the practice squad. While I’d love to have the $8 million rolled over from Murphy’s contract, there is no way I’m keeping Taylor as the third player who can serve as a one-tech defensive tackle on the final roster over Murphy if Phillips is healthy.
The strongest combination for Buffalo’s defensive line has Addison and Hughes starting at end, Butler and Oliver starting at tackle, and a second wave of Murphy and Epenesa at defensive end with Jefferson and Phillips at defensive tackle. Johnson is a great special teams player who serves as a good last-resort option at defensive end if one of the top guys is injured, and I’d rather they expose Taylor to waivers than Johnson.
What do you think, Bills fans—do the Bills keep four defensive ends or five? And which ones do they keep?