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.
This offseason, three of their top defensive tackles from a year ago plus one of the inside-outside defensive ends all departed, and Buffalo has once again revamped their defensive tackle position. Hopefully it will be a big upgrade.
In today’s look at the state of Buffalo’s roster, we discuss the interior defensive line group.
Contract status: Entering fourth year of his rookie contract w/fifth year option already picked up for 2023
Age: 24 (25 on 12/12/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 623 defensive snaps (57.79% of team total)
Key 2021 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 in 2021. 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. He could sign an extension as early as midseason, but following 2022 is more likely.
Contract status: Signed a two-year, $14 million contract this offseason
Age: 30 (31 on 12/27/2022)
2021 Playing time: 17 games and 17 starts, 641 defensive snaps (58.92%) and 84 special teams snaps (18.63%) for Carolina Panthers
Key 2021 statistics: 1 forced fumble, 1 sack, 38 tackles for Panthers
Yes, he’s a former Panther but no, he didn’t play for Sean McDermott or any of the Bills’ coaches. He spent just one year in Carolina after seven years with the Tennessee Titans. The big-bodied Jones is going to be their primary 1-tech defensive tackle, especially on early downs, trying to occupy blockers for Ed Oliver, the defensive ends, and linebackers.
Contract status: Signed a two-year, $9 million contract this offseason
Age: Turned 25 on 7/11/2022
2021 Playing time: 16 games, 210 defensive snaps (18.97%) and 98 special teams snaps (22.37%) for Washington
Key 2021 statistics: 1 fumble recovery, 13 tackles for Washington
He had five sacks in 2020 but most of his young career was spent buried behind big-time talent on Washington’s front four. The Bills are banking on a breakout when giving a larger role to the 1-tech with pass-rush ability. He’ll rotate with Jones.
Contract status: Signed a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason
Age: 29 (30 on 9/21/2022)
2021 Playing time: 9 games (8 starts), 284 defensive snaps (26.10%) for Arizona Cardinals
Key 2021 statistics: 2 passes defended, 3 sacks, 22 tackles for Arizona
Even when healthy, Phillips played half the snaps for the Cardinals as a rotational piece last year, but he missed half the games with an undisclosed injury and COVID-19. He very much underwhelmed during his time in Arizona after a successful year in 2019 with Buffalo. Everyone is looking for a return to those solid numbers, when he logged 9.5 sacks and 31 tackles. He’s locked onto the roster by his contract, and will likely be in a 50-50 rotation with Ed Oliver at 3-tech, though he can play 1-tech.
Contract status: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022 ($895,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut)
Age: 28 (29 on 9/16/2022)
2021 Playing time: 2 games, 32 defensive snaps (2.97% of team total), 5 special teams snaps (2.97% of team total)
Key 2021 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.
Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 2/7/2022
Age: Turned 28 on 6/8/2022
2021 Playing time: 5 games, 91 defensive snaps (8.44% of team total), 6 defensive snaps (1.38% of team total)
Key 2021 statistics: 9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 1 pressure
Like Justin Zimmer last year, Ankou was a practice-squad player whose repeated call-ups led to better play than veterans making far more money than him. Ankou had supplanted Vernon 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 this season on the practice squad again, as he offered value as a space-eater playing next to Oliver.
Contract status for 2021: Signed three-year UDFA contract this offseason
Age: No idea, the Bills don’t list an age and neither did Penn
2021 Playing time: 10 games for University of Pennsylvania
Key 2021 statistics: First-team All-Ivy, 5 sacks, 49 tackles for Penn
He signed after a strong showing at rookie minicamp, but he is a small DT with bad measurables. That hasn’t stopped the Bills before, and he could find himself in that practice squad role as the fifth or sixth DT.
Contract status for 2021: Signed a three-year UDFA contract this offseason
Age: No idea, neither the Bills nor Coastal Carolina listed his age, but he played 5 CFB seasons
2021 Playing time: 13 starts for Coastal Carolina
Key 2021 statistics: First-team All-Sun Belt, team captain, 54 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one fumble recovery, 12 yards on a fake punt run
Brewer played his way onto the roster after rookie minicamp, signing after that weekend. Like Emili, he’s undersized, which hurt him in the draft process. He’s playing for that final DT spot, as well, but more than likely it’ll be practice squad or nothing for Brewer.
Another offseason, another crazy amount of resources used on the defensive line. Hopefully it works this time.
We know Oliver, Settle, Jones, and Phillips are going to make the roster, so the main battle among those four will be who’s going to be the starting 1-tech next to Oliver. That might not even matter so much, given the nature of the Bills’ rotation at the position. So what’s the split going to be? We won’t find out in training camp. Will they be effective? Again, we won’t really find that out in training camp.
Instead, the bottom four are the players to watch during training camp. Can one of them play their way onto the 53-man roster like Justin Zimmer did last year? (Zimmer could also be re-signed when he’s healthy following his knee surgery.) If they don’t find their way on the 53, who will the Bills keep on the practice squad?