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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: defensive ends

How will Von Miller return after his second major knee injury?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Entering the 2022 NFL season, the feeling in most circles about the Buffalo Bills was that the team was, essentially, a pass rush away from being the team to beat. After Buffalo inked a future Hall-of-Fame sackmaster to a massive contract in the offseason, the hype train started steamrolling along. When that player began his season playing about as well as anyone could have imagined, the hype started to feel inevitable.

Alas, as with so many good things, the good vibes came crashing down on Thanksgiving Day when that pass-rush specialist suffered a torn ACL. Buffalo’s pass rush was never the same, and while it wasn’t the only reason that the season ended in disappointment, it was a major factor in Buffalo’s inability to capitalize on their potential.

Now, just one year after watching another superstar player, cornerback Tre’Davious White, rehab an ACL tear suffered on Thanksgiving Day, the Bills will wait for another superstar to rejoin the club in the 2023 campaign. How does that injury impact general manager Brandon Beane’s roster construction? How does it impact the 2023 season? We won’t answer those questions here, but they’re going to be huge talking points all offseason long.

In our latest look at the state of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, we profile the defensive ends — a group full of players facing high expectations in 2023.

Von Miller

Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of six-year contract ($18.615 million cap hit; $40.175 million dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 33 (34 on 3/26/23)

Playing time: 11 games (11 starts), 450 defensive snaps (42.82% of team total)

Key statistics: 21 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 2 pass knockdowns, 1 forced fumble

Miller was everything fans expected him to be and more during his 11 games. He played fantastic football himself while also drawing enough attention away from his teammates along the defensive line to allow them to play their best, too. However, that Ford Field turf claimed him as a victim on Thanksgiving Day, and although it was initially reported that he had avoided the dreaded ACL tear, subsequent testing found that to be untrue. An aggressive timeline could put Miller on track to play as early as September, but Buffalo rarely follows aggressive return-to-play timelines when it comes to big-time injuries. I expect that Miller will start the year on the PUP list just like Tre’Davious White did this past season, and while it wouldn’t surprise me for him to return earlier than White ultimately did, I’d target the first game in October as the likeliest date of return on the early end. If you could pick five games for Miller to miss at any point in the year, I think we’d all agree that missing five games in September and October is preferable to him missing games in January and February, so I look for the team to bring him along slowly and, hopefully, that translates to a fully healthy Miller pushing the Bills through the playoffs next winter.

Boogie Basham

Contract status for 2023: Signed; third year of four-year rookie contract ($1,534,075 cap hit; $725,434 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 25 (26 on 12/16/23)

Playing time: 15 games, 389 defensive snaps (37% of team total), 39 special teams snaps (9.51% of team total)

Key statistics: 19 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 2 sacks, 2 pass knockdowns, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery

The 2021 second-round draft choice was disappointing in his second season, as he didn’t show much burst as a pass rusher and he continued to struggle to earn snaps in the defensive end rotation. Basham has the feel of a “tweener” who doesn’t quite fit the role of an edge in the Sean McDermott/Leslie Frazier scheme, but he also doesn’t quite fit the role of a three-tech defensive tackle, either. His best use is probably as an interior pass-rush specialist in obvious passing situations, but that doesn’t make me feel better about the team having double-dipped at the edge to draft him when there were other players on the board who fit needs at other positions. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but it would look pretty great right now if the Bills had Creed Humphrey, who was selected at No. 63 overall, just two picks after Basham. This year is going to be a big one for Boogie.

A.J. Epenesa

Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of four-year rookie contract ($1,870,050 cap hit; $458,600 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 24 (25 on 9/15/23)

Playing time: 15 games (2 starts), 375 defensive snaps (35.68% of team total), 43 special teams snaps (10.49% of team total)

Key statistics: 16 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, 6.5 sacks, 5 pass knockdowns, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery

Epenesa made some strides this year, and he was able to remain effective after Miller’s injury. In five games after Miller went down, Epenesa had three sacks and four tackles for loss. Great numbers? Absolutely not. Adequate given the heavy rotation deployed by McDermott and Frazier along the defensive line? I’d say so. Depending on what happens with some other players, Epenesa should be in line to start games early on next year as Miller sits and rehabs his injury. While the team gives Miller time to reacclimate to competition, they’ll probably keep the veteran on a “pitch count,” giving Epenesa a chance to earn a second contract with the team. He’s a solid, if unspectacular, player who fits the rotational needs of the team.

Shaq Lawson

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 28 (29 on 6/17/23)

Playing time: 15 games (6 starts), 467 defensive snaps (44.43% of team total), 28 special teams snaps (6.83% of team total)

Key statistics: 30 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 9 quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, 1 pass knockdown, 1 forced fumble

I don’t think most of us envisioned a world where Lawson was a full-time starter last season, but that’s exactly what transpired thanks to injury and inconsistent play from some of Buffalo’s younger players. Lawson played more snaps on defense than any other Bills edge player, and while his sack numbers remained in line with his modest career averages, he was his typical, solid self as it relates to setting the edge and defending against the run. Lawson is a great rotational player for a rotation-heavy defensive front like Buffalo’s, and I have to think that there will be mutual interest in a reunion this season. If he can be re-signed for the veteran’s minimum, it’s a move I’d like to see the team make.

Greg Rousseau

Contract status for 2023: Signed; third year of four-year rookie contract ($3,165,873 cap hit; $6,618,266 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 22 (23 on 4/5/23)

Playing time: 13 games (13 starts), 463 defensive snaps (44.05% of team total), 38 special teams snaps (9.27% of team total)

Key statistics: 37 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits, 8 sacks, 4 pass knockdowns, 1 forced fumble

Groot took a big step forward this past season, as Miller’s presence really unlocked the young pass rusher’s potential. He doubled his sack total this year while playing in four fewer games, and while it’s true that five of those eight sacks came before Miller was injured, it’s also important to note that those sacks all came before Rousseau missed time with an ankle injury of his own. With another year of experience and a healthy Miller back on the opposite side, it’s not unreasonable to expect Rousseau to register a double-digit sack season in 2023.

Kingsley Jonathan

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/23/23 ($871,750 cap hit; $3,500 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 24 (25 on 4/28/23)

Playing time: 1 game, 18 defensive snaps (1.71% of team total)

Key statistics: 1 tackle, 1 tackle for loss

Jonathan was elevated from the practice squad for just one game, Buffalo’s victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 16. He only made one tackle, but it was a good one, as he stuffed running back Khalil Herbert for a loss on 2nd & 10 late in the first quarter. He might not be a household name, and he probably isn’t going to win a starting gig, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him make a run at the fourth defensive end spot this summer.

Mike Love

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 29 (30 on 1/22/24)

Playing time: 1 game, 20 defensive snaps (1.9% of team total), 9 special teams snaps (2.2% of team total)

Key statistics: N/A

Love played in one game, Buffalo’s 28-25 victory over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day. He didn’t register a tackle, and when the team signed players to reserve/futures deals in January, he wasn’t among those signed. He could be back on the practice squad, but Buffalo appears ready to move on from the longtime reserve.

The defensive ends in Buffalo’s system aren’t necessarily players who rack up big statistics, mainly because they’re often asked to play more contain than other ends in the team’s scheme. Look no further than someone like Jerry Hughes, who was “finished” after a two-sack season in Buffalo in 2021, yet he moved on and ended up with nine sacks as a member of a moribund Houston Texans defense in 2022. When the ends are able to pin their ears back and rush, though, they’ve proven that they can have some success, albeit with the right personnel on the field.

The “right” personnel is a heavy dose of Miller, Rousseau, and Epenesa, with the emphasis on Miller’s participation to draw attention away from the others. Miller really is the key to this group, and given the amount of resources invested in the defensive line, it feels unsettling to even say it that way. Rousseau was a first-round draft choice, and Epenesa and Basham were each selected in the second round, so one would hope that those guys would be able to disrupt quarterbacks on their own merit. Rousseau and Epenesa have shown flashes, but of that pairing, it’s Groot who appears to be the one closest to living up to his draft pedigree.

This is a long-winded way of saying that, while one could make a case for adding another pass-rush specialist here, given the areas of the roster that need upgrading elsewhere and the current investments at the position, I don’t expect Buffalo to do much more other than wait for Miller to be healthy and run it back. If another pass-rush specialist became available for cheap, then of course Buffalo could add someone from outside the building. However, if the team drafts an edge rusher early, I think I speak for a high percentage of Bills fans who will be very, very disappointed.

Scanning the free-agent list, there are some names that would obviously be great, but with Buffalo’s cap situation, it’s unlikely that they can land someone like Brandon Graham, Yannick Ngakoue, or Robert Quinn. More likely, they’d be looking at someone younger like Charles Omenihu or Kentavus Street, or even a veteran type like Carlos Dunlap who would take an incentive-laden deal. There aren’t too many names in what I’d consider to be Buffalo’s budget here, so I wouldn’t expect much more than a re-signing of Lawson to round out the depth chart.