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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Interior defensive linemen

Buffalo needs some big-bodied space-eaters up front

NFL: Buffalo Bills-Training Camp Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills certainly entered the 2021 season confident in their depth at defensive tackle. They returned a first-round draft pick, two former first-round choices whom they signed as free agents, a beloved third-round draft choice, and a high-motor free-agent signing. The group looked to have some solid depth.

Despite those plans, the Bills struggled at times along the defensive interior. Injuries, inconsistency, and poor gap integrity opened up a big weakness against the run. By the end of the year, the team essentially had two players they could rely on to play in the middle, which is problematic for a team that rotates its linemen as much as Buffalo does.

In today’s look at the state of Buffalo’s roster, we discuss the interior defensive line group.

Vernon Butler

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 27 (28 on 6/14/2022)
Playing time: 10 games (1 start), 285 defensive snaps (26.44% of team total), 29 special teams snaps (6.68% of team total)
Key statistics: 11 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 3 hurries, 5 pressures

Butler’s 2021 season was one of the more disappointing campaigns in recent memory. Nobody expected greatness from the former first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers. All we wanted was a little effort, and if the loss against the Indianapolis Colts was any indicator, that was even too much to ask. Butler was a healthy scratch for most of the season’s second half, and I’d put the chances of him re-signing at close to zero.

Star Lotulelei

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of three-year contract extension ($9,266,470 cap hit; dead cap situation discussed below)
Age: 32 (33 on 12/20/2022)
Playing time: 11 games (8 starts), 317 defensive snaps (29.41% of team total), 26 special teams snaps (5.99% of team total)
Key statistics: 17 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, 4 pressures

Lotulelei’s situation is interesting. If the Bills release him before June 1, then the team will carry a $7.7 million dead-cap number. If they trade him before June 1, that dead-cap number drops to $5.2 million. If he’s released as a post-June 1 cut, then that dead-cap charge is $5.1 million this year and $2.6 million next year. If he’s traded post-June 1, it’s a dead-cap number of $2.6 million this year and next year. It’s pretty unlikely that a team wants to trade for a soon-to-be-33-year-old interior player who’s played in just 11 games over the past two years, though, so the Bills will have an intriguing decision as it relates to their veteran 1-tech this Spring.

Ed Oliver

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of four-year rookie contract w/fifth year option ($6,260,276 cap hit; $6,225,277 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 12/12/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 623 defensive snaps (57.79% of team total)
Key statistics: 41 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 3 pass knockdowns, 1 forced fumble, 18 pressures, 4 hurries

Buffalo’s 2019 first-round choice was the team’s best interior lineman this year. He was disruptive in the passing game, and while he was susceptible to traps at times in the run game, he was the clear focal point for other teams when they schemed inside runs. That was the problem with Buffalo’s setup along the line: they need to find someone to take that extra blocker away from Oliver, setting him up to do even more damage in one-on-one scenarios. Buffalo has a decision to make regarding his fifth-year option, but I don’t think it’s much of a decision, as the team should absolutely exercise that option to retain him for a fifth year.

Harrison Phillips

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 26 (27 on 1/25/2023)
Playing time: 14 games (8 starts), 474 defensive snaps (43.97% of team total), 79 special teams snaps (18.2% of team total)
Key statistics: 51 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits, 1 sack, 1 pass knockdown, 1 fumble recovery, 2 hurries, 8 pressures

Phillips led all Buffalo defensive linemen in combined tackles, though just 28 of those were of the solo variety. After an up-and-down 2020 season where it was clear that he wasn’t fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered in 2019, Phillips managed the best season of his career at the best possible time for him, as he hits the free-agent market looking like a player on the rise. By the end of November, Phillips had supplanted Lotulelei as Buffalo’s top one-tech. That could put a damper on Buffalo’s hopes of retaining his services, as Phillips could easily decide that $7 million elsewhere is better than $4 million to stay with the Bills. I’m nearly certain that Phillips is a player general manager Brandon Beane will want to re-sign, but I’m not entirely sure he is a player that Beane will retain.

Brandin Bryant

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($895,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut)
Age: 28 (29 on 9/16/2022)
Playing time: 2 games, 32 defensive snaps (2.97% of team total), 5 special teams snaps (2.97% of team total)
Key statistics: 2 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 pressure

Bryant has a great chance of sticking with Buffalo in the same role that he’s had the last few seasons, as his spot on the practice squad is a good one. He isn’t someone that the team wants to rely upon for any number of significant snaps, but in a pinch, Bryant is a “good enough” option as a rotational player.

Justin Zimmer

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 29 (30 on 10/23/2022)
Playing time: 6 games, 161 defensive snaps (14.94% of team total), 16 special teams snaps (3.69% of team total)
Key statistics: 8 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 4 quarterback hits, 2 hurries, 6 pressures

After a breakout 2020 season where, at times, Zimmer looked like Buffalo’s best defensive tackle, he cooled somewhat in his six games this year. He was still playing well, and his snap share ranged from 35% to 51% of the total defensive snaps in each of his six games. Clearly, the coaching staff views him as someone who provides value to the rotation. He tore his ACL, though, during Buffalo’s Week 6 loss at the Tennessee Titans, so depending on his recovery, he may not be nearly as effective in 2022.

Eli Ankou

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 2/7/2022
Age: 27 (28 on 6/8/2022)
Playing time: 5 games, 91 defensive snaps (8.44% of team total), 6 defensive snaps (1.38% of team total)
Key statistics: 9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 1 pressure

Like Zimmer last year, Ankou was a practice-squad player whose repeated call-ups led to better play than veterans making far more money than he is. Ankou had supplanted Butler in terms of “guy who the coaching staff wants to put on the field,” but given the financial ramifications of releasing Butler, the Bills kept Ankou on the practice squad and Butler on the active roster. While he did not sign a reserve/futures deal immediately after Buffalo’s season ended, he did sign the contract in February. He has a pretty good shot at sticking around next year, as he offered value as a space-eater playing next to Oliver.

It seems crazy to say given all the resources that Buffalo has used on its defensive line in the last few years, but the Bills need to overhaul their interior defensive line. While Lotulelei began the season strong, injuries and a bout with COVID-19 sapped his strength and effectiveness to the point where Phillips and Ankou were outplaying him by the end of the season. Buffalo should say goodbye to Butler without so much as a discussion about returning, as his lack of effort and success can’t be rewarded with a new contract regardless of his familiarity with the team.

Phillips is obviously the most interesting player, and while I think most fans want him back, I don’t know how much money the Bills should pay to keep him here. He’s a phenomenal person and a good player, and the fan-favorite piece makes it difficult to discuss him in cold business terms. However, he almost certainly benefitted from teams choosing to double Oliver instead of him, and that can’t be how the interior of Buffalo’s defense operates. The point is to have the one-tech eat the double teams so that the three-tech can penetrate and the MIKE linebacker is free to attack without interference. If Buffalo doesn’t have that big space-eater, then the defense won’t operate at maximum efficiency.

I would pick up Oliver’s option, sign Zimmer to a deal at the veteran’s minimum for a year, and look to draft at least one big fella whose sole purpose is to eat blockers for lunch, dinner, and dessert. While the comparison isn’t going to work directly given the differences in the defense, I liken it to when the Bills signed Ted Washington prior to the 1995 season. Replacing a fan-favorite in Jeff Wright with an immovable force in the middle paid big dividends for the team’s defense overall. Of course, adding Bryce Paup to Bruce Smith certainly helped, so if the Bills could add another pass rusher via free agency in conjunction with a space-eating tackle, we could see an elite defense enter a whole new level of awesome in 2022.

Buffalo has limited resources to do the things that it needs, which is why I wouldn’t look to spend free-agent dollars here. Whether it’s a top-tier one-tech (Jordan Davis or Phidrian Mathis), a lower-tier guy (Derrick Tangelo or Noah Elliss), or someone off of Grif’s list (Marquan McCall, a 6’3”, 358-lb behemoth out of Kentucky), the draft is going to be the way to go to supplement the interior defensive line. Putting someone next to Oliver who can occupy two gaps is the key to unlocking the true potential of this defensive line.