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Who’s the Buffalo Bills’ most entertaining defensive player since 1994?

Using math to determine the most entertaining Bills defender

Seattle Seahawks v Buffalo Bills Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The NFL offseason is the perfect time for frivolous debates and discussions, and I saw a great topic come through author Joe Posnanski’s blog on Wednesday, referencing baseball statistician Tom Tango’s formula to determine the “most fun” player in MLB. Essentially, Tango’s trying to mathematically decide who’s “fun” through awarding points for exciting events like triples, home runs, and stolen bases.

It’s a neat idea, and I figured I’d try my hand at this for the Buffalo Bills. Pro Football Reference has play-by-play data going back 29 years to 1994, just after the peak of the Jim Kelly-era Bills, and I’m using that to calculate “fun-ness” for Bills players in that span. We’ll cover both defensive and offensive players in this lookback, but since NFL players are more specialized than baseball players, I’m separating the two roles in this comparison.

Here’s how I came to rate the defensive players: The most exciting defensive play is a defensive touchdown. I’ll award 8 points to every time a defender scores one of those. Forced fumbles and interceptions are also huge — an interception is a guaranteed change of possession, and while a forced fumble doesn’t necessarily end that way, the drama of watching the ball skitter across the turf makes it equally entertaining. Both plays are worth 3 points. If a player manages to recover a fumble, they created a turnover — that’s exciting, but a little less thrilling than the player who started the process, so it earns 2 points. Sacks are also worth 2 points. They don’t necessarily generate turnovers, but they might as well be the signature impact play on a defense. Tackles for loss and pass breakups are both worth 1 point. They play second fiddle to other, more exciting play outcomes, but it’s still enjoyable to see a linebacker blow up a play in the backfield or a defensive back slap a pass to the turf.

I also added two bonus multipliers to celebrate rarities with defensive positions. Defensive backs (safeties and cornerbacks) are given double points for their TFLs and sacks. The idea being, it’s thrilling to see a pass defender successfully abandon their turf with a surprise play in the backfield. For the same reason, defensive linemen (tackles and ends) are given double points for any interceptions. You love to see a 280-pound defensive lineman go up and catch a pass from the other team, so we’ll celebrate it when it happens.

(Pass breakups aren’t given the same point multiplier for defensive linemen, because they can earn the points by just throwing up hands at the line of scrimmage. It’s effective, but not FUN in the same way a defensive back would do the job.)

Finally, I tally up every player’s points, remove anyone who played fewer than 16 games for the Bills, and divide by games played to calculate their “fun” score. This normalizes for players who had long careers with the team, and it also rules out anyone who had an outlier result with a very small sample size. For instance, Josh Norman would’ve topped the list, but he only played nine games with the team in 2020. During those nine games, he had a pick-six, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, four passes defended, and two TFLs. A ton of impact plays, but a bit of a fluke compared with someone who plays three or four seasons with the team.

Without further ado, the ranking!

1: Bruce Smith (5.40 points per game)

Bruce has a few things working against him on this list: first, due to the limitations of the play-by-play data, he didn’t get any credit for his pre-1994 career, which tallied 106 sacks and 19 forced fumbles. He also receives limited credit for TFLs, a stat which wasn’t tracked before 1999.

And yet he still blows away the rest of the pack, nearly doubling up the score of the second-place player. Averaging 11 sacks and three forced fumbles per season will do that. It’s no surprise that the best defender in Bills history is also the most entertaining.

2: Aaron Schobel (2.93 points per game)

In second place due to outstanding efficiency sustained over his nine-year career is Schobel, who retired on the heels of a 10-sack season rather than take a trade or play in Buffalo’s nascent 3-4 defense. Schobel ranks second all-time on the franchise sack list, he racked up the TFLs, and he had 21 forced fumbles during his career with the Bills. He was also the rare player who played well against the early New England Patriots dynasty; in 16 games against Brady and Belichick, Schobel had 12 sacks and 11 TFLs. He also had a memorable pick-six of Tom Brady in 2009, his only NFL touchdown.

3: Jordan Poyer (2.82 points per game)

No one should be surprised to see Poyer up here — he’s the only player in the NFL to notch 20 interceptions and 10 sacks over the past six years. He always finds thrilling ways to blow up plays, whether it’s up at the line of scrimmage or deep down the sideline.

4: Nate Clements (2.81 points per game)

Go ahead and argue that Clements should move up this list, because he wasn’t just a dynamic defender, but a deadly punt returner as well. I’m willing to listen. The five interceptions that Clements returned for touchdowns were a major factor in his final ranking on the list. But if I also awarded him eight points for each of his two punt return TDs, then his efficiency score would bump up above Schobel’s.

5: Jairus Byrd (2.68 points per game)

Byrd’s rookie season probably rates as one of the top ten “fun” seasons in Bills history, along with another player who we’ll mention later. He memorably came down with five interceptions in a single game against the Jets, finishing the year with nine in total and a Pro Bowl selection. Byrd, the ballhawk, finished his five-year Bills career with 22 interceptions, 33 passes defended, and 11 forced fumbles.

6: Mario Williams (2.65 points per game)

Williams, the $100-million man, didn’t reach the end of his contract in Buffalo. But for three of the four seasons he played with the team, he set up a vacation home in the opposing backfield. From 2012 to 2014, Williams racked up 38 sacks, 46 TFLs, five forced fumbles, and nine pass breakups.

In 2015, playing in Rex Ryan’s scheme, Williams lost his mojo. He played 15 games, but only managed five sacks and seven TFLs — without any passes defended or fumble action. That season was the reason Williams fell behind Byrd on the list.

7: Takeo Spikes (2.60 points per game)

Spikes was every bit the talented linebacker the Bills were hoping for when they signed him to a six-year deal in 2003. He made his first Pro Bowl that season, and then had a campaign for the ages in 2004: five interceptions (two pick-sixes), four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery, an incredible 18 passes defended, three sacks, and eight tackles for loss amid his 98 total tackles. That rightfully earned him a first-team All-Pro selection. But his fortune turned three games into 2005, when he tore his Achilles tendon. Returning in 2006, Spikes started the year with a strip sack on Tom Brady that his teammate, London Fletcher, returned for a touchdown, but he didn’t force another fumble or land another sack for the rest of the season. He and the team mutually planned to part ways, and he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2007 season.

8: Kiko Alonso (2.38 points per game)

He only played one season for the Bills, with a torn ACL preventing his sophomore season and Chip Kelly trading for him before his third year in the league. But what a year that was. Alonso was a tackling machine, racking up 159 takedowns in 2013, though I don’t award any credit for those. He did, however, have 11 TFLs and two sacks. Alonso kept coming up with game-changing plays, catching four interceptions and two fumble recoveries, and he finished as a runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He only played six seasons in the NFL, but in Buffalo, the legend lives on.

9: Tre’Davious White (2.36 points per game)

White is the most prolific Bills pass defender this side of Nate Clements, getting his hands on a whopping 83 passes in his 78 career games: 17 interceptions and 66 passes defended. He’s also happy getting into the dirty work of defending, with 11 TFLs, five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in his career. He didn’t quite land in the top tier of this list because of quiet seasons in 2021 and 2022, but he’s one of the most reliable playmakers in the league when he’s playing at his full capacity.

10: Drayton Florence (2.26 points per game)

While Florence played with the Bills, he was a solid, not spectacular, starter who helped elevate the team’s secondary when others like Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, and Aaron Williams weren’t reliable enough. But he also had a certain flair to his time with the team. Florence, known as a physical man-coverage corner, was always in position to make a play on the ball, and he tallied 38 pass breakups in his three seasons. He had three defensive touchdowns, the biggest being a pick-six in Buffalo’s upset win over the Patriots in 2011. That landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Final thoughts

I wanted to call out a few names who missed the cut.

Lorenzo Alexander came in 11th, a reminder of how he rose out of obscurity to be a serious defensive weapon (and a team captain, to boot) during the Rex Ryan and early Sean McDermott tenures.

Bacarri Rambo, remember him? He rated 17th on this list. He only appeared in 19 games, starting eight, but the reserve safety had two picks against Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the same game.

I wanted to look for a few other players who, in my memory, registered as “fun” or exciting playmakers. George Wilson rated 26th. Antoine Winfield came in 33rd; most of his most entertaining moments were tackles and pass breakups, and that doesn’t necessarily translate to a high score. Kyle Williams was down in 48th; by total score, he was the sixth-highest, but when you divide that across his 12-year career, other players had a brighter impact in a shorter timespan.

Were there other metrics I should’ve looked at? Maybe it was more important to highlight a player’s peak performances (standout singular games or seasons) as opposed to averaging their career? Were there stats I ignored that I shouldn’t have, or should I have weighted my scores differently? Maybe there’s a way to quantify the off-field entertainment from these players?

Weigh in below!