We’re counting down the best, most important, most impressive early career Buffalo Bills. These players are the closest thing to a “farm system” for an NFL team, and ideally they’re playing major roles in the team’s success. For every Von Miller the team’s signing in free agency, they’re only able to work that tactic by supporting him with a handful of younger, cost-controlled players.
In second place we have Ed Oliver. The former top-ten pick is one of the team’s more disruptive defenders, even though he hasn’t always had much in the way of support or opportunity to let loose. Heading into a pivotal fourth season, if Oliver can wreak havoc on a week-to-week basis, he might be signing a $70 million contract in the future.
The list so far
- Number 3: WR Gabriel Davis
- Number 4: DE Greg Rousseau
- Number 5: RB Devin Singletary
- Number 6: CB Kaiir Elam
- Number 7: OL Ryan Bates
- Number 8: DT Tim Settle
- Number 9: K Tyler Bass
- Number 10: OT Spencer Brown
- Honorable mentions: Boogie Basham, A.J. Epenesa, Zack Moss, James Cook
Number 2: DT Ed Oliver (turns 25 on December 12)
It’s been three seasons of significant, sometimes frustrating progress for Oliver, who was billed as the final puzzle piece to an all-star defensive lineup when he was drafted in 2019. Known for prodigious stats in college, Oliver wasn’t able to have the same impact when he joined the Bills. Instead, it was Jordan Phillips who partied with 9.5 sacks that season, though Oliver’s five sacks and five tackles for a loss (TFLs) were a solid start to his career.
The 2020 season saw Phillips depart and Star Lotulelei opt out of playing due to the pandemic. Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler, signed for substantial free-agent dollars, ended up being massive disappointments. So Oliver frequently played outside of his ideal role, and he didn’t stand out very much when he was on the field. He still notched three sacks and six TFLs during the regular season, but that was a far cry from the 18 TFLs per year he was averaging in college.
In 2021, Oliver was able to play with Lotulelei again, at least for some of the season, but the Bills still didn’t have much tackle depth on the roster. But even without an ideal supporting structure, Oliver began to shine, especially in the second half of the season. There were stretches of games where Oliver single-handedly shut down opposing offenses, blowing up play after play after play until the opponent was forced to punt. In the final five games of the year, including two playoff games, Oliver turned in 4.5 sacks, six TFLs, eight QB hits, and 17 combined tackles. And he did all that while only playing around 60% of snaps in defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier’s aggressive DL rotation system.
To this point in his career, the ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft is ranked as the tenth best player in that draft by Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value stat. In other words, he hasn’t been a star, but he hit par.
The Bills revamped every part of their defensive tackle room this past offseason, signing DaQuan Jones, Jordan Phillips, and Tim Settle to contracts. Those men have the size that Oliver’s previous running mates lacked. Maybe, with a new supporting cast, this is the year that Oliver takes a DeForest Buckner-sized leap and hits the Pro Bowl with a ten-sack season? We’ll see.