As you might expect, the list of the best young Buffalo Bills is going to be topped by some recent first-round draft picks. It makes sense—these players have the college reputation, the athletic talent, the potential to dream on, and important roles on the team. If they continue to polish their skills, they can join the league’s elite someday. At number three on the list, we have a defensive tackle who hasn’t yet been selected to a Pro Bowl. Could 2021 be his breakout season?
The list so far
Honorable mentions: A.J. Epenesa, Zack Moss, Spencer Brown, Dawson Knox
Number 10: K Tyler Bass
Number 9: DE Carlos “Boogie” Basham Jr.
Number 8: OG Cody Ford
Number 7: DE Greg “Groot” Rousseau
Number 6: RB Devin Singletary
Number 5: WR Gabriel Davis
Number 4: CB Taron Johnson
Number 3: DT Ed Oliver (turns 24 on December 12)
Bills fans probably don’t call Ed Oliver a disappointment after the first two seasons of his career, but he has yet to dive deep into his talent pool and take over NFL games like he did in college. Let’s review: The former ninth-overall pick, entering his third season, has 76 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss (TFLs), and eight sacks in his career to date. Those are great numbers but not phenomenal; from his rookie class, Oliver has the third-most sacks among DTs, behind Dre’Mont Jones and Quinnen Williams. He ranks behind former Bills draft pick Marcell Dareus, who notched 11 sacks in his first two seasons.
There’s no question that Oliver is a seriously gifted athlete, as a former five-star recruit with a decorated college career and an outstanding NFL Combine workout. He came to the Bills with plenty of fanfare, as the “final piece” completing head coach Sean McDermott’s defense. His rookie year was a nice start to things; rotating with Jordan Phillips and Star Lotulelei, Oliver was part of a dangerous defensive front and picked up five sacks.
The 2020 season was a sophomore slump, on the other hand. Lotulelei’s absence loomed large, forcing Oliver to play more nose tackle reps than were originally planned. Teammates Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson were also much less effective than Phillips or Lotulelei, and Oliver didn’t demonstrate the same playmaking as a result. Oliver did lead all Bills defensive linemen with 33 tackles, but only had three sacks and six TFLs.
One red flag for Oliver’s career so far is that he’s only played 54 percent of snaps on defense in each of his two seasons. Yes, Sean McDermott’s defense makes heavy use of defensive line rotations. Yes, Oliver started his career as a backup, and had to compete against Jordan Phillips having the best year of his own career in 2019. But it’s disappointing that Oliver couldn’t carve out a bigger role as a sophomore, with a much less impressive group of teammates around him. Kyle Williams played more than 65 percent of snaps in 2017 and 2018 under McDermott, in what were the final two years of his own career.
Yet despite that, he’s still young, he’s still a fantastic athlete, he’s still an established starter, and he’s still shown that he can be effective on the field. In terms of raw potential among Buffalo’s young players, Oliver is absolutely near the top of the list. We’re just waiting for the leap that takes him to Pro Bowl caliber. Here’s hoping it happens in 2021.