The Buffalo Bills’ defensive line has become a constant discussion point for fans and pundits alike. It seems as though annually, we discuss: What can the Bills do to improve their pass rush? Last year, the team thought it had addressed the issue by adding future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller to the fold, and for most of the season, that issue was addressed. However, a torn ACL ended Miller’s season and, with it, demolished any gains the front four seemed to make.
Pass rush isn’t necessarily the first function of the interior defensive linemen, but in the modern NFL, it’s a huge part of what players are asked to do. At times, it felt like the Bills had two, possibly three, strong interior defensive linemen in the main rotation. However, as it so often happens in the NFL, the main group just couldn’t stay healthy at the same time.
So, in our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we discuss the defensive tackles — a group that, once again, seems to exist somewhere at the crossroads of “it could be fine” and “it may need an overhaul.”
Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($8,583,333 cap hit; $7,041,668 dead-cap hit if cut or traded)
Age: 31 (32 on 12/27/2023)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 643 defensive snaps (61.18% of team total), 56 special teams snaps (13.66% of team total)
Key statistics: 38 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, 1 fumble recovery, 2 sacks
It sounds crazy to say that, sometimes, it feels as if the entire Sean McDermott/Leslie Frazier defensive system hinges on the strength of the one-tech defensive tackle, but after adding Jones to the unit this past season, that statement doesn’t sound so crazy anymore. Buffalo was consistently better against the run than it had been in years, and Jones was a big part of the reason why. He only missed one game, and it was a big one, as he didn’t play in the season-ending loss against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round. It’s not surprising, then, that the Bills were dominated physically even though the Bengals were starting three reserve offensive linemen. Jones was arguably Buffalo’s best defensive lineman after Miller tore his ACL, and there’s a chance that we see him extended this offseason for two reasons: first, because he’s an integral part of the defense, and second, because lowering his 2023 cap number will help the Bills add even more talent to the roster.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; fifth-year option on rookie contract ($10.753 million fully guaranteed)
Age: 25 (26 on 12/12/23)
Playing time: 13 games (13 starts), 527 defensive snaps (50.14% of team total), 4 special teams snaps (1% of team total)
Key statistics: 34 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, 1 safety, 3 pass knockdowns, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Buffalo’s 2019 first-round selection had an up-and-down season. At times, he looked like the player he was drafted to be — a one-man wrecking crew in the middle of the defensive line. In Weeks 9-12, he totaled 14 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, 1 safety, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. As you can see, by comparing those games to his entire season line, for much of the rest of the season, Oliver was either injured or he disappeared for long stretches. That inconsistency is extremely troubling as he enters his fifth season on a fully guaranteed contract, the final year of his rookie deal. If the Bills find a trade partner willing to roll the dice on unlocking his potential, they could clear his entire salary off their books, as there would be no dead-cap charge if he were traded. However, Buffalo would still have to find a replacement for Oliver in the middle of their defense. It’s an interesting thought experiment, at least, to consider dealing Oliver. It’s also something that we’ll probably debate an awful lot in the coming weeks.
Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 30 (31 on 9/21/23)
Playing time: 12 games (1 start), 346 defensive snaps (32.92% of team total), 3 special teams snaps (.7% of team total)
Key statistics: 20 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, 2 pass knockdowns
Phillips is another player whose season seemed to be derailed by constant, nagging injuries. In the season-opening victory over the Los Angeles Rams, Phillips had four tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4 quarterback hits. Again, comparing that to his season-long line shows that, for major stretches, Phillips was either hurt or he disappeared altogether. Phillips injured his hamstring in Week 2, and injured his shoulder later in the year. The latter injury was a rotator cuff tear, which will require surgery. It’s worth discussing a reunion next year on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, but it’s also worth exploring other, younger options here.
Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($4.945 million cap hit; $2.7 million dead-cap hit if cut or traded)
Age: 25 (26 on 7/11/23)
Playing time: 15 games (2 starts), 373 defensive snaps (35.49% of team total), 50 special teams snaps (12.2% of team total)
Key statistics: 19 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass knockdown
Settle is a solid, young rotational piece, but he never quite generated much in the way of production. He was signed almost as a hybrid one-tech/three-tech player, but when Jones was hurt in the playoffs, the Bills used practice-squad player Eli Ankou as the starter in Jones’ stead. Settle did outsnap him, appearing on 40 snaps to Ankou’s 28. At a nearly $5 million cap hit, it’s hard to imagine that he returns in 2023 without some sort of adjustment to the contract, but I don’t see an extension as likely. He’s a candidate for release, even with the modest cap savings it would create.
Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/23 ($940,000 cap hit; $0 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 28 (29 on 6/8/23)
Playing time: No regular-season playing time; however, he played in both playoff games, starting the loss against the Cincinnati Bengals. In those games, he played 18 defensive snaps against the Miami Dolphins (25% of team total) and 28 defensive snaps against Cincinnati (38% of team total). He played two special teams snaps against Miami (6%) and five special teams snaps against Cincinnati (23%).
Key statistics: No regular-season stats. In the playoffs, he totaled four tackles, notching two in each playoff game.
Buffalo clearly trusts the bulky space-eater, as they not only elevated him in both playoff games, but they played him (and started him in one) as a substantial part of the rotation in both contests. True, that was partially borne out of necessity, but they could have gone with Brandin Bryant, whom they elevated during the regular season, yet they didn’t. Ankou is a good bet to be on the practice squad again next year unless they either find a younger option to develop, or another team picks him up after cuts.
Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/23 ($942,500 cap hit; $2,500 dead-cap hit if cut or traded)
Age: 26 (27 on 9/2/23)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Broughton signed to Buffalo’s practice squad in December after being released by the Kansas City Chiefs. He hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since playing three snaps on December 16, 2021. He fits the size profile that Buffalo looks for in their three-tech players, standing at 6’2” and weighing in at 293 pounds.
Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/23 ($1.012 million cap hit; $2,000 dead-cap hit if cut or traded)
Age: 29 (30 on 9/29/23)
Playing time: 4 games, 74 defensive snaps (7.04% of team total), 11 special teams snaps (2.68% of team total)
Key statistics: 3 tackles
Bryant saw the most playing time he’s had since 2019, when he appeared in four games for the Cleveland Browns. He’s been in Buffalo since the 2020 season, so I expect that he’ll be a practice squad consideration again next year.
There are far too many questions about this unit than there should be for a positional group that seems to be revamped every season. While adding Jones to the group paid big dividends, adding Settle and Phillips did little, and Oliver’s consistently inconsistent play makes it that three of the top four defensive tackles didn’t quite live up to their billing. There are also no guarantees that, in his age-32 season, Jones will replicate the success and good health he experienced for much of this season. Basically, the Bills have two choices here: they either run it back and hope for better health from Oliver and Phillips, or they undergo another facelift at the position.
I’m thinking that it might be time for the latter, but then the question becomes one of gauging just how much work general manager Brandon Beane can (or should) do. Moving on from Phillips won’t cause too many ripples, as his production can easily be replicated by healthy players. Of course, a healthy Phillips is exactly what this defense needs, so wagering on a bounce-back by giving him a one-year deal wouldn’t be a bad move. Moving on from Settle is also a distinct possibility, as the team could allocate the $2.2 million they’d save to other areas of need and replace him with a late-round draft choice or another low-cost free agent.
The big questions really surround what to do with Jones and Oliver, and while it seems obvious to extend one, it isn’t the one who should be the obvious candidate for an extension given his age and his draft pedigree. Does Beane give Oliver a small extension that kicks some of his contract down the line, banking on the talent finally taking over? Does he cut bait and admit that Oliver isn’t the player they thought he’d be by trading him for a Day 3 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft? Does he do nothing, and let Oliver play out the year on his fifth-year option?
I’d love to see the team add some young depth either late in the draft or via undrafted free-agent signings, but finding those diamonds in the rough is even more of a crapshoot than the draft itself. The team clearly has two distinct types of defensive tackles that it likes, so they need to zero in on players who fit that mold who might have some baggage — whether it’s an injury history, coming from a small school, limited athletic testing, or statistical production — something that causes a player to fall, but still gives a team hope that the player can be coached up in a way that they are successful in the defense.
Either way, this is going to be a position to watch — again — this offseason.