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90 players in 90 days: Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei

The big man returns from his opt-out in phenomenal physical condition

NFL: Buffalo Bills Minicamp Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills struggled to control the line of scrimmage on defense last season, often allowing huge chunk plays on the ground. While Buffalo’s potent offense limited the number of running plays opponents could try given the leads they had to attempt to erase, there were days where that strategy didn’t work. For all the money the team spent on the defensive line, they looked as if they were missing a big piece last year.

And that’s because they were missing a huge piece—literally and figuratively—to the puzzle. Without a sure-fire one-tech defensive tackle to eat space and blocks, Buffalo’s linebackers struggled to stay clean. The Bills and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier were forced to play other defensive tackles in that one-tech role, and most of those players were actually better suited to playing as a penetrating three-tech. One player’s absence caused a domino effect that weakened the entire defensive line as a result.

In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we profile that missing puzzle piece—a veteran space-eater who’s back in 2021.

Name: Star Lotulelei

Number: 98

Position: DT

Height/Weight: 6’2” 315 lbs

Age: 31 (32 on 12/20/2021)

Experience/Draft: 8; selected by the Carolina Panthers in the first round (No. 14 overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft

College: Utah

Acquired: Signed with Bills on 3/13/2018

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Lotulelei carries a salary cap hit of $7.6 million this season, and the Bills would be on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $11.8 million if he were to be released. While last year was supposed to have been the first year of the renegotiated deal he signed in the winter of 2020, he opted out last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant that he would only count $750,000 against Buffalo’s 2020 salary cap, and that his contract would be pushed back a year. Lotulelei is under contract with the Bills for three seasons, as his current deal now expires following the 2023 season.

2020 Recap: As mentioned above, Lotulelei opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so he did not play in 2020.

Positional outlook: Star looks like he’ll reclaim his role as a starting one-tech along the defensive front, as he’ll battle with Harrison Phillips and Eli Ankou for snaps in that role. Ed Oliver played a lot of one-tech last year, as did Vernon Butler, though both players are better suited for the three-tech role. Justin Zimmer, Nazair Jones, Treyvon Hester, and Brandin Bryant are the other defensive tackles on the roster.

2021 Offseason: Lotulelei missed some of the team’s voluntary OTAs, but he did come to minicamp later in June.

2021 Season outlook: Barring something crazy, Lotulelei will be on Buffalo's roster and he’ll be ready to take around 40 percent of the defensive snaps once again. With a high dead-cap number, there’s almost no shot that he’ll be released. Lotulelei doesn’t put up sexy numbers, but he does all the dirty little things that allow his teammates to put up those numbers. His return is a welcome addition to the defensive line.