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Buffalo Bills training camp roster preview: Interior defensive linemen

Star Lotulelei is back. Is that enough to shift this position group in the right direction?

Buffalo Bills Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

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 (both financial and in NFL Draft capital) leads to a bit of a disconnect, as fans tend to see such highly priced players and expect gaudy stat lines.

Today we look at the interior defensive line—where one return could spark a series of improvements.

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)
2020 Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 541 defensive snaps (50.51 percent), nine ST snaps (2 percent)
Key 2020 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 restructured this offseason ($5.8 million cap hit, $3.5 million dead cap)
Age: 26 (27 on 6/14/2021)
2020 Playing time: 14 games (nine starts), 403 defensive snaps (37.63 percent), 55 ST snaps (12.25 percent)
Key 2020 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 restructure this offseason virtually guarantees Butler’s place on the 2021 roster, and his versatility is useful.

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: Turned 25 on 1/25/2021
2020 Playing time: 12 games (three starts), 319 defensive snaps (29.79 percent), 24 ST snaps (5.35 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 18 tackles, four quarterback hits, one FR

Phillips was a healthy scratch in a few games in 2020, 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 an okay 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, if they move on from him it won’t be because of money. This season will be a big one for him if he can make the team, though, if he wants to earn a second contract from the only professional team he’s known (or another team, for that matter).

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)
2020 Playing time: 12 games, 260 defensive snaps (24.28 percent), seven ST snaps (1.56 percent)
Key 2020 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 (Sean) 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 restructured contract signed last offseason ($7.6 million cap hit; $11.8 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 31 (32 on 12/20/2021)
2020 Playing time: N/A (opted out of 2020 season due to COVID-19)
Key 2020 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)
2020 Playing time: One game, seven defensive snaps (.65 percent)
Key 2020 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.

Eli Ankou

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $850,000 deal this offseason with zero guaranteed money
Age: Turned 27 on 6/8/2021
2020 Playing time: Seven games for Dallas Cowboys; 186 defensive snaps (16.79 percent) and 4 special teams snaps (0.87 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 5 tackles for Cowboys

Ankou has bounced around on several teams in the NFL, but his best season was 2017. He’s fringe player but solid NFL training camp depth for Buffalo

Treyvon Hester

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $920,000 contract with zero guaranteed money this offseason
Age: 28 (29 on 9/21/2021)
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 statistics: N/A

Hester has spent time with am multitude of NFL teams, logging decent stats for a backup defensive tackle over the years. He was injured in the Green Bay Packers’ training camp last year and spent the last two months of the season on the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad following an injury settlement in Green Bay. He’s a solid training camp addition and a guy you want to have available in case of injury.

Players who left this offseason

The return of Lotulelei hopefully helps this position group a ton. With Star back in the fold, the three-techs can go back to penetrating instead of space-eating. Hopefully we get a step forward from top-ten draft pick Ed Oliver, who really needs to become a force in the pass rush for the Bills to pick up his fifth-year option.

The biggest question for me (Matt) is Harrison Phillips. With the increased numbers at the defensive end position, I’ve had a hard time keeping him on my 53-man roster projections. If he’s fully healthy and ready to live up to his third-round draft status, I want him on the team and he’s easy to root for. If he’s going to stay as the same player, I may want to move on from him at this point.