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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Interior defensive linemen

We conclude our look at the Bills’ roster with the biggest of the big fellas on defense

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills have invested heavily in their defensive line under general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott. Given the heavy rotation that McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier prefer to deploy, this investment makes sense. However, that rotation coupled with the investment leads to a bit of a disconnect, as fans tend to see such highly-priced players and expect gaudy stat lines.

While the Bills may have a large percentage of their salary cap tied up in the defensive line (over $55 million, which equals roughly 29 percent of their cap and is the second-highest total in the league), their individual pieces aren’t exactly breaking the bank. The Bills have the No. 14 and No. 19 defensive ends based on 2021 salary cap figures, as well as the No. 17, No. 18, and No. 20 defensive tackles by that measure. The team has invested in a talented group that, in theory, should make everyone’s job on the defense a little easier.

Will the Bills be able to keep this group together in a year where the salary cap is tight? Do they even want to keep the group together, or will they seek upgrades to the players they brought in as upgrades last season? In the conclusion to our State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster series, we examine the interior defensive linemen.

Ed Oliver

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($5,335,952 cap hit; $11,561,229 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 12/12/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 541 defensive snaps (50.51 percent), nine ST snaps (2 percent)
Key statistics: 33 tackles, six tackles for loss (TFLs), six quarterback hits, three sacks, three pass breakups (PBUs), one forced fumble (FF)

Oliver was drafted to be a disruptive force in the middle, and whether due to scheme or circumstance, he hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations set for him. Perhaps that’s because some people were expecting Oliver to walk in and dominate like Aaron Donald—a player to whom Oliver drew comparisons when he was drafted No. 8 overall out of Houston in 2019—but it’s also been hard for the Bills to deploy Oliver in a way where he is best utilized. In 2019, Jordan Phillips had a breakout year as the team’s three-tech defensive tackle, so Oliver ceded snaps to the veteran during his rookie campaign. In 2020, with Star Lotulelei having opted out, the Bills used Oliver as a one-tech more often than they would have liked. Judging a defensive tackle by his statistics is incredibly difficult, as it’s often his job to eat space for others to earn the counting stats. In that regard, Oliver has proven to be someone offensive coordinators have to account for on every snap. Now entering his third season, this would be a good year for Oliver to break out and put his immense talent together in all phases of the game.

Vernon Butler

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($7,818,750 cap hit; $1 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 6/14/2021)
Playing time: 14 games (nine starts), 403 defensive snaps (37.63 percent), 55 ST snaps (12.25 percent)
Key statistics: 18 tackles, five TFLs, two quarterback hits, one PBU, one FF

The Bills took a chance on another former Carolina Panthers player, and that gamble didn’t really pay off in terms of numbers. Butler is a big-bodied player who was a bit out of place in Buffalo’s defense—while he can play some one-tech, he’s really more of a three-tech in this defense, but he had his best season in 2019 playing mostly as a five-tech—so the signing was a little mismatched from the start. The contract was structured beautifully, as the Bills knew they’d need Butler in 2020, but they gave themselves a pretty solid “out” heading into 2021, as the team could release Butler and save over $6 million on the cap this year.

Quinton Jefferson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($8 million cap hit; $1.5 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 27 (28 on 3/31/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (four starts), 510 defensive snaps (47.62 percent), 65 ST snaps (14.48 percent)
Key statistics: 23 tackles, three TFLs, six quarterback hits, three sacks, one fumble recovery (FR), one PBU, one FF

Jefferson ended up playing more snaps than any defensive tackle other than Oliver for the Bills this season. Part of that can be attributed to his versatility, as Jefferson can play both defensive tackle and defensive end. Despite playing nearly half the defensive snaps, Jefferson didn’t have a tremendous impact on the stat sheet, leading to his name being among those floated as a prime candidate for release. The Bills would save $6.5 million on this year’s cap by releasing Jefferson, but versatile defensive linemen with a good motor don’t grow on trees, and we’ve already discussed the fact that stats and defensive tackles don’t necessarily go together in the McDermott-Frazier system. Jefferson is a good player who is still young, but his cap number is a tough pill to swallow in a budget-crunch year.

Harrison Phillips

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of rookie contract ($1,143,760 million cap hit; $193,760 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 1/25/2022)
Playing time: 12 games (three starts), 319 defensive snaps (29.79 percent), 24 ST snaps (5.35 percent)
Key statistics: 18 tackles, four quarterback hits, one FR

Phillips was a healthy scratch in a few games this year, and then he was among the team’s top players in the rotation in terms of snaps for others. Just one year removed from an ACL tear, Phillips did a nice job when asked to eat space as the one-tech, and he was able to make some plays while appearing on just under 30 percent of the team’s snaps. At his cap figure, it’s highly unlikely that he goes anywhere, as he embodies exactly the kind of man the staff wants in the locker room. This season will be a big one for him, though, if he wants to earn a second contract from the only professional team he’s known.

Justin Zimmer

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($920,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 28 (29 on 10/23/2021)
Playing time: 12 games, 260 defensive snaps (24.28 percent), seven ST snaps (1.56 percent)
Key statistics: 21 tackles, three TFLs, seven quarterback hits, one sack, one FF

Zimmer was arguably the Bills’ most productive defensive tackle on a per-snap basis, which is equal parts fantastic for Zimmer and terrifying when considering the amount of money the team spent on other players at the position. The former undrafted free agent is in his second stint with Buffalo, as he entered the league with the Bills in 2015 but was released before ever appearing in a regular-season game. His forced fumble on Cam Newton sealed Buffalo’s first win over the New England Patriots last year, and Zimmer impressed with his athleticism and high motor on multiple occasions. While everyone focused on Tre’Davious White and Taron Johnson when the latter intercepted Lamar Jackson against the Baltimore Ravens, watch the replay again and check out Zimmer flying down the field. Spoiler alert: I love an underdog (that’s why the 90 Players in 90 Days series is my favorite thing to write), and Zimmer is my new favorite ‘dog on the roster.

Star Lotulelei

Contract status for 2021: Signed; first year of three-year contract signed last offseason ($7.6 million cap hit; $11.8 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 31 (32 on 12/20/2021)
Playing time: N/A (opted out of 2020 season due to COVID-19)
Key statistics: N/A

Lotulelei is the poster child for fans misreading player value. When Lotulelei played in 2018 and 2019, he was a constant target of negativity due to his lack of counting stats, totaling just 36 tackles and two sacks in 32 games. Last year, though, with Lotulelei out, the Bills’ run defense struggled mightily, and suddenly people yearned for Star’s massive frame eating double-teams to free up players like Ed Oliver to shoot gaps and disrupt the backfield. Fandom is a fickle thing, and I’ve caught myself wondering about Lotulelei’s value given the four-year, $50 million contract he initially signed with the club. Thanks to some restructures, an opt-out in 2020, and some rolled-over bonuses, Lotulelei is pretty much a roster lock next year, as the Bills would owe him more money not to play for the team than they would to roster him. His return should be a welcome sight for us all—even those of us who thought him overpaid prior to last season.

Brandin Bryant

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/26/2021 ($780,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 27 (28 on 9/13/2021)
Playing time: One game, seven defensive snaps (.65 percent)
Key statistics: One tackle

Bryant spent the season on the Bills’ practice squad, making it on to the active roster for one game. He made a tackle in Buffalo’s 24-21 victory over New England in Week 8. He has four career tackles in five games.

As with the edge rushers, the Bills have decisions to make here regarding the cast of characters and the resources they’ve poured into the position—as well as the resources they’ll need to pour in to make things better on defense. It’s likely the Bills part ways with Butler this offseason, and I’d argue that it’s also likely that Jefferson is gone, as well. That would leave the Bills with a top four rotation of Oliver, Lotulelei, Phillips, and Zimmer, which is a good-not-great foursome. The Bills could save $13 million by releasing the two veterans they signed last offseason, or they could save $6.8 million by releasing Butler and keep Jefferson for added depth and versatility. While that’s a great idea in theory, the Bills are going to need money to keep their offensive line group together and add pass rush help, and that’s before they try to ensure that there’s enough money to keep quality depth at linebacker and cornerback. I think that foursome I listed above will stick on the roster, and the Bills will look to add a low-cost veteran whose market is depressed once a glut of veteran free agents are added to the free-agent pool next week. The team should prioritize depth players here through the draft or free agency.