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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: Defensive tackles

With just one player from this year’s 53-man roster under contract next year, there will be changes

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have invested heavily along the defensive line in the last few years. Whether we’re talking about defensive ends or interior linemen, the Bills deploy their linemen in a heavy rotation, which means that the fourth person on the depth chart is often playing at least 25% of the defensive snaps in a game.

That means the Bills need to maintain strong depth in order to continue rotating the defensive line in the same way. During the 2023 NFL season, Buffalo’s defensive front was deep as it’s been in recent memory, and the team had a great deal of success as a result. Granted, that success didn’t show through in the Bills’ final game of the season, a 27-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs. But for the vast majority of the 2023 season, Buffalo’s defensive front was one of the stop unit’s top personnel groupings.

That’s not to say that the injury bug didn’t bite there, however. The Bills dealt with myriad injuries on the defensive side of the ball, and the line wasn’t immune to those issues. Buffalo adjusted, added some personnel, and survived long enough for the grouping to return to close to full health, though.

In our first in a series of looks at the state of the Bills’ roster this offseason, we discuss the defensive tackles, a group that exists in a state of flux thanks to financial constraints and the undefeated march of Father Time.

Poona Ford

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 28 (29 on 11/19/2024)

Playing time: 8 games, 151 defensive snaps (14.1% of team total), 33 special teams snaps (7.67% of team total)

Key statistics: 9 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, 3 QB hits

In the 2022 NFL Playoffs, the Cincinnati Bengals were able to exploit weaknesses up front for the Bills when DaQuan Jones missed the game with an injury. Buffalo had no options last season other than to call up a player from the practice squad and play him for a significant number of snaps in that game. This offseason, Buffalo targeted Ford as a reserve in the one-tech role to avoid that happening again in the event of an injury to Jones. Well, Jones was injured early in the year, and Ford entered the fold — and he didn’t play well. That led to Ford being a healthy scratch for the majority of the season, which clearly didn’t sit well with the 28 year old, as he signed with the Bills both to chase a Super Bowl ring and to play. Although he had a strong showing late in the year against the Los Angeles Chargers, Ford was mostly a non-factor when he played, and he was once again a healthy scratch by the end of the season.

Da’Quan Jones

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 32 (33 on 12/27/2024)

Playing time: 7 games (7 starts), 174 defensive snaps (16.23% of team total), 4 special teams snaps (.93% of team total)

Key statistics: 16 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 5 QB hits

For the first four games of the year, Jones was outstanding, as he and Ed Oliver combined to give the Bills the best one-tech and three-tech combo of the Sean McDermott era. Then, Jones tore a pectoral muscle against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London during their Week 5 contest, and that momentum all came to a screeching halt. Jones missed all but two more regular-season games — the final two contests against the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. He played well against the Pittsburgh Steelers in clearing room for Buffalo’s battered battery of linebackers, but he was dominated by the Chiefs’ interior line in Buffalo’s elimination game. The void year on Jones’ contract means that the Bills will carry a cap hit of $1,833,334 in his name this season whether or not they can manage to re-sign him.

Linval Joseph

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 35 (36 on 10/10/2024)

Playing time: 7 games, 161 defensive snaps (15.02% of team total), 1 special teams snap (.23% of team total)

Key statistics: 12 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB hit

Joseph signed midseason to provide extra beef in the wake of Jones’ injury, and at the start, he gave the team a jolt of energy that Ford wasn’t providing. Joseph is a larger body who can eat blockers, but he’s also a guy who wasn’t playing professional football who was thrust into one of the most physically demanding positions on the field at an age where many of his peers have retired. By the end of the season, he looked like a 35-year-old defensive tackle.

Ed Oliver

Contract status for 2023: Signed; first year of four-year, $68 million contract extension ($9.725 million cap hit; $19.55 million dead-cap charge if released or traded; 4.01% of team’s total cap)

Age: 26 (27 on 12/12/2024)

Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 730 defensive snaps (68.1% of team total), 5 special teams snaps (1.2% of team total)

Key statistics: 51 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 17 QB hits, 9.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception

Oliver was an absolute revelation this season, as he had the best year of his career when the pressure turned up most on him. After signing a four-year deal worth a total of $68 million, the 2019 first-round pick delivered the goods for 18 of Buffalo’s 19 games this past season. Oliver set career-highs in sacks, quarterback hits, tackles for loss, and pressures, finally displaying the game-altering disruptiveness on a consistent basis that the Bills thought they had added with that draft choice. Of course, the only game where Oliver was thoroughly negated was the last one, as All-Pro guard Joe Thuney ate his lunch all evening. Given that the most recent memory of Oliver is that performance, there may be some ill feelings about his entire season, but it’s hard to overstate just how good he was all year long.

Tim Settle Jr.

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 26 (27 on 7/11/2024)

Playing time: 17 games (2 starts), 379 defensive snaps (35.4% of team total), 57 special teams snaps (13.3% of team total)

Key statistics: 14 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 2 QB hits

Settle Jr. came to Buffalo with a great attitude and the promise of an expanded role unlocking potential he hadn’t shown in his first NFL stop. After two seasons with the Bills, it’s safe to say that none of that extra potential came through in Buffalo, either, as Settle was often the invisible man in the Bills’ four-man defensive tackle rotation. He’s not quite disruptive enough to be a three-tech, nor is he quite big and strong enough to man the one-tech consistently. While his versatility meant he could play in both spots, he wasn’t terribly effective in either. The void year on his contract means that the Bills will carry a cap hit of $1.35 million in Settle’s name this season.

Jordan Phillips

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 31 (32 on 9/21/2024)

Playing time: 14 games (9 starts), 392 defensive snaps (36.6% of team total), 7 special teams snaps (1.63% of team total)

Key statistics: 15 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 5 pass breakups

Phillips came back to Buffalo last season, and after an effective 2022 season, he had another solid campaign in 2023. Phillips flashes ability as a disruptor, but one of his sneaky-good strengths is his ability to bat passes at the line of scrimmage. Over the last two seasons, Phillips has seven pass knockdowns, five of which came this season. Bitten by the injury bug again at the end of the season, Phillips floated the idea of retirement to reporters during locker clean out.

Eli Ankou

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/23/2024

Age: 29 (30 on 6/8/2024)

Playing time: N/A while with Buffalo; Ankou played in one game with the Atlanta Falcons this season

Key statistics: 1 tackle

Ankou was with the Bills in the offseason, and then he was a member of the practice squad in the early going. He was signed to the Atlanta Falcons’ 53-man roster, and he made a tackle in the one game he played with the Falcons this season. After Atlanta released him, Buffalo brought him back to their practice squad when Phillips was injured. The Bills signed him to a reserve/futures deal, which means that they at least have a one-tech on the roster for the spring and summer to pair with their three-tech in Oliver.

Clearly, the Bills need to add bodies here given that they have just two players under contract for next season. Given that the team generally rolls with four active defensive tackles on game day, they’ll need to add plenty of beef to make sure they have some players to choose from for next year’s roster. Oliver is a given, and Ankou is a likely candidate for the team’s practice squad at the very least. However, Buffalo needs to make decisions on the veterans they had this season while also looking to the future.

Ford is likely gone given his obvious displeasure with his lack of playing time. Joseph is likely gone, as well, given his age and his ineffectiveness as the season progressed. Whether Jordan Phillips decides to retire or not, I think it’s a good time for the Bills to look elsewhere for his roster spot, as well, given his extensive injury history. I don’t think I’d be terribly interested in them re-signing Settle, either, as his energy and enthusiasm were his highest-quality assets to the club. They need more production and disruption from their rotation players, and too often, Settle was invisible when he played.

Jones would be an obvious want and need as it relates to re-signing, but the Bills are tight to the salary cap and they just might not have the money needed to make that move. If Jones would be open to something of a creative contact — two years, $16 million with incentives, a void year to kick some of the cap into a third year — then that would be a win for the Bills. Jones has been a linchpin to the defense since he arrived in 2022, and his absence would leave a massive hole up front, both literally and figuratively.

The Bills will certainly be linked to one-tech defensive tackles in the 2024 NFL Draft, and I’ve even seen a few where they select one at No. 28 in the first round. While it would certainly be nice to add someone like a Jer’zhan Newton out of Illinois, Kris Jenkins from Michigan, or T’Vondre Sweat from Texas, picking one in the first round isn’t exactly on my list of good moves the Bills could make. Now, Sweat in the second round? Sign me up, as that kind of mammoth to eat up space and blockers would open up so much in Buffalo’s defense.

If the early investment in a defensive tackle is too rich for your blood, players like Justin Rogers out of Auburn or McKinley Jackson out of Texas A&M might fit a bit better in the middle-to-late rounds. Jackson is a favorite of mine just because I’d love to have a guy on the roster to nickname Mt. McKinley, just like back in the ‘90s when the Bills had another giant nose tackle nicknamed for a mountain, Ted Washington.

Teair Tart, Raekwon Davis, Taven Bryan, and Maurice Hurst are some of the veterans available who fit the size/strength profile that Buffalo likes for their defensive tackles and who could likely be had at a bargain price, but it’s not as if the Bills are going to have the funds to sign someone like Chris Jones, Justin Madubuike, or Christian Wilkins, who are all sure to command humongous deals on the open market.

With 10 draft picks likely for the Bills, I wouldn’t be mad at the team for double-dipping here to try to find both a one-tech and a three-tech rotational player. I don’t want to see the Bills take one in Round 1, but if they could snag Sweat in Round 2 and someone like LSU’s Jordan Jefferson on Day 3 of the draft, I’d be pretty hyped. If your preferred Round 2 pick for the Bills is a safety, then I’m not mad at that, either. Perhaps the Bills pick someone like Rogers or “Mt. McKinley” instead. Whatever the order is, the Bills are entering next season with a few clear needs, so they have to find creative ways to address them.