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Free-agent defensive tackles for the Buffalo Bills to sign

Finding a rotation buddy for Ed Oliver

The Buffalo Bills need another defensive tackle who can play three-technique. Ed Oliver, with four sacks, eight tackles for loss (TFLs), and 50 tackles, was the unquestioned starter and leader at the position by the end of the 2021 season, but no one else stepped up. Vernon Butler spent half the season as a healthy scratch, and the Bills started playing 265-lb Efe Obada at the position because they had no other options.

Especially given how unbelievably frequently the Bills rotate their defensive linemen, and with all their backup options set to hit the open market, the team needs another option at the position. If they look for a veteran, there’s a reasonable, if not overflowing, list of players covering a range of costs. So someone should meet their needs.

Larry Ogunjobi

The 6’4” 305-lb Ogunjobi was a high-quality starting tackle for the Cleveland Browns in 2018 and 2019, with 102 tackles, 20 TFLs, 11 sacks, and 28 QB hits across those two seasons. Still a starter in 2020, he played fewer snaps overall in a down year. Essentially all of his impact metrics were halved, perhaps because he ended up setting the table for Olivier Vernon more often.

Signing a one-year, $6.2 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals, Ogunjobi returned to his highly productive ways in 2021. He paced their defensive line with seven sacks, 12 TFLs, 16 QB hits, and 49 total tackles. He suffered a foot injury in the playoff opener, and finished the year on injured reserve.

Assuming he’s healthy, Ogunjobi deserves to cash in. The 28 year old ranks favorably among DTs, in a similar range to Javon Hargrave, Grady Jarrett, and David Onyemata. Jarrett’s contract is the outlier, paying him $17 million per year and $42 million guaranteed, while Hargrave and Onyemata average $13 million per year and had substantially less guaranteed.

Ogunjobi should also pursue a contract paying him $12-14 million per year, and at least $20 million guaranteed.

Malik Jackson

Jackson, who turned 32 this year, is definitely past his prime, but could still be a reliable veteran option on the defensive line. From 2013 to 2018, Jackson was good for five sacks and ten TFLs each year, but in his last two years with the Philadelphia Eagles and Browns, he’s been reaching the QB less and making fewer tackles. In a backup role, though, he might still be a capable run defender and situational pass rusher.

Paid $3.75 million on his one-year deal, Jackson will garner a similar wage on his next contract.

Sheldon Richardson

It kind of feels like Richardson’s been playing in the league for 15 years, but he’s still only 31, entering his tenth season. It’s probably just that he changed teams four times in the last five years. After starting basically every game he played in his career, 2021 saw Richardson moved into a rotation and “only” playing 57% of snaps for the Minnesota Vikings. That’s a career-low for Richardson, but he still played more snaps than Ed Oliver, who led the Bills’ defensive line!

If you want a player to juice up your pass rush, Richardson has been the guy for his whole career. In the last two seasons, he has seven sacks, 11 TFLs, 23 QB hits, and 103 tackles. He had 22 pressures in 2020 and 18 pressures in 2021.

After being released from a three-year, $37 million contract with the Browns, Richardson signed a one-year, $3.6 million contract with Minnesota. His value is still in the $3-5 million range, depending on team fit.

Maliek Collins

A former third-round pick who started his career with the Dallas Cowboys, in his first four seasons, Collins was the definition of boom-or-bust. He played more than 60% of snaps, and averaged only 21 total tackles per season, about one or two per game. But he also averaged five TFLs and 3.6 sacks per year, so most of his contact was high-quality.

Weirdly, as a productive free agent just about to turn 25, Collins only landed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders. And yet he didn’t live up to that. He missed some time with COVID-19 and also spent some time on injured reserve, and in 12 games he had 15 tackles, no sacks, no TFLs, and a single QB hit.

Signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Houston Texans, Collins rebounded in 2021, with 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks, nine TFLs, and seven QB hits. He’ll probably sign another contract in the $5-7 million range with his next team.

D.J. Jones

Listed at 6’0” and 305 lbs, Jones could potentially line up as a nose tackle in Buffalo’s smaller-sized scheme, or he could be a one-gapping defensive tackle. Known more for his run-stopping prowess than his pass rushing, Jones has 21 TFLs in the last three seasons, compared with seven sacks and eight QB hits.

2021 was a standout year for Jones, who more than doubled his previous career high for tackles (with 56) and led the league in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate.

Jones, who just turned 27, played under a $3.5 million contract last year. He’ll probably be looking for a raise, though with his reputation for run stopping over pass rushing, and the fact that he’s maxed out at 51% of snaps in his best year, it won’t be too much more. A contract worth $6-9 million annually seems like the ballpark.

B.J. Hill

After a solid rookie season with 5.5 sacks and 48 total tackles, Hill regressed in a big way for the New York Giants. His next two years only saw two sacks and four TFLs, and Hill dropped out of the starting rotation entirely. That led to a player swap with the Bengals, where Hill became a key member of the defensive line. In the first eight games, he topped 50% of snaps once, then he took more than half of the snaps in 11 of the final 12 games of the season.

Hill had 50 tackles and 5.5 sacks in the regular season, and tacked on 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the playoffs.

Having played out his rookie deal, Hill is an unrestricted free agent for the first time. As a player who had two good years and two bad years, his best contract fit might be Jordan Phillips, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract after a career year with the Bills.

Justin Jones

A former third-round pick from NC State, Jones started 35 games for the Chargers in his first four seasons. He hasn’t been very productive, with 4.5 sacks and 12 TFLs in his career, but 2021 was his best season (he had a career-high 3 sacks and 37 tackles). He’ll only be 26, and if the Los Angeles Chargers don’t re-sign him following his rookie contract, Jones looks like an affordable backup who might have some upside.

Maurice Hurst

Hurst’s career has taken strange turns. A heart condition led him to fall in the NFL Draft, but he worked his way into the starting rotation as a rookie nonetheless. And he was a seriously productive young player, with 7.5 sacks and seven TFLs in his first two seasons.

Hurst caught COVID-19 and missed two weeks in 2020, and the Raiders scratched him from a few games, but he still had six QB hits, half a sack, and eight pressures in that season. Then he was waived after the season, and the San Francisco 49ers signed him to a one-year, $1 million contract. But they barely used him, with 41 total snaps in the 2021 season.

So it’s not clear why Hurst, with a very productive pass-rushing history, has fallen out of favor with teams. He’ll almost definitely cost the veteran minimum on his next contract, but he has the upside of a pass-rushing specialist on the interior capable of five to six sacks per year.

Darius Philon

From 2017 to 2018, Philon had 8.5 sacks and 14 TFLs for the Chargers. Then he was arrested after pointing a gun at a woman and threatening to shoot her, and spent the next two years away from football. The Raiders signed Philon in 2021 to a veteran minimum contract, and he rotated back onto the field as a backup defensive tackle. In 11 games of action, he had two sacks, five TFLs, and 27 tackles. He then tore his patellar tendon in Las Vegas’s playoff game.

Philon just turned 28 years old. Depending on the severity of his tendon tear he could already be back in action or he might need as much as six months to a year of recovery. So if he’s healthy enough to play in 2022 (and if he avoids trouble in the offseason) he’d be a low-cost backup option.

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