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Ranking the Buffalo Bills’ 2021 defensive needs

Tier-ranking the biggest needs on defense for next season

The 2020 season never lacked excitement for the Buffalo Bills or the NFL as a whole, as it brought Bills fans more happiness than they have been able to express in 20 years. With a quarterback who played at an MVP level and an offense that ranked tops in the league, the team looks poised to make another deep run for a Super Bowl next season. During the 2020 offseason, the Bills brought in seven new faces on defense, attempting to build a contender-worthy defense. The Buffalo defense ended up ranked 14th in the NFL in total defense, 13th in pass defense and 17th in run defense. Stopping the run was a major issue for the Bills last season, and will definitely be a point of emphasis heading into free agency and the draft.

After being interviewed by the Houston Texans for the head coaching vacancy, the Bills were lucky to retain their defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier. With some key free agents still yet to re-sign, the Bills have decisions to make going forward into next season. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest positional needs for the team.

Tier One

Next to a struggling run defense last season, the most glaring need on this team is guys who can get pressure on the quarterback. Buffalo ranked tied for 15th in the NFL with 38 sacks on the season, with A.J. Klein and Mario Addison leading the way at five sacks a piece. Although Jerry Hughes was second in the NFL in highest pass rush win rate, according to ESPN, his counterparts did not have similar success. With the release of defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson on Wednesday, along with defensive end Trent Murphy set to hit the open market, the Bills should look to get younger on the defensive line. Former second-round pick, A.J. Epenesa put together a nice rookie season and should plan to see more playing time next season, but I do think general manager Brandon Beane wants to make this position group a point of emphasis this offseason. Some possible big splashes the Bills could make in free agency include names such as Yannick Ngakoue, Shaq Barrett, Bud Dupree or Matt Judon. Whether they decide to go that route through free agency or the draft, expect a new-look Bills defensive line next year.

Tier Two

Having an All-Pro cornerback is a great luxury for any team, but having two great corners is what makes a Super Bowl team. The Bills have three of the most important players on defense signed in Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer—for at least the next two seasons. That is a great core, but with Levi Wallace scheduled to become a Restricted Free Agent and Josh Norman set to become an Unrestricted Free Agent, Buffalo has some holes to fill in the secondary. Seventh-round pick Dane Jackson showed flashes during his snaps, but putting him in as CB2 on the depth chart could be a risk the Bills may not be willing to take. Playoff hero Taron Johnson will be forever beloved by Bills Mafia, but he still has some flaws in his game that prevent him from being a lock-down corner. After the team struggled tremendously to stop opposing tight ends last year, look for the Bills to possibly add a player in the draft or free agency to play that “big nickel” position on defense.

Tier Three

News broke late Thursday afternoon (March 11) that linebacker Matt Milano had agreed to terms with the team on a new four-year contract. With Milano returning on a team-friendly contract the Bills will run it back in 2021 with both their weak- and strong-side starting linebackers. Apart from the immensely talented Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, there’s less typical veteran depth and untested youth. A.J. Klein had a rollercoaster year for the Bills last year. Klein had a nice string of games in the middle of the season while Milano was injured, but he struggles in pass coverage. Tyrel Dodson and Tyler Matakevich are both entering the final year of their contracts. Andre Smith is a restricted free agent while Del’Shawn Phillips and Darron Lee are both unrestricted free agents. So, despite the breaking news about Milano’s new deal, the team could look to add depth at the position through free agency or the draft. There looks to be plenty of talent in this year’s draft among players such as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Azeez Ojulari or a possible sleeper like Baron Browning who could step in right away and become an impact player if needed. Fortunately, what appeared to be a big positional concern for the Bills now becomes an opportunity to add and groom new talent behind a great starting tandem.

Buffalo currently holds seven picks in the upcoming NFL draft. They do not own a fourth-round pick due to the Stefon Diggs trade last March, but do hold an extra fifth-round pick from the Zay Jones trade to the Las Vegas Raiders.