The Bills quietly played better defense last season than many of us realize. They allowed the second-fewest total yards, were number one versus the pass, and were near the top with 27 turnovers. The two things Buffalo did not excel at last season were stopping the run -- where they ranked 17 -- and getting to the quarterback -- where the Bills' 36 sacks were near the bottom of the league. What better way to improve both areas than to take the best, most disruptive interior lineman in the draft. That is what the Bills believe they have in Ed Oliver.
In many ways, Oliver reminds me of Geno Atkins. He has the tools to become a force on the inside and fits right into the current NFL trend of explosive interior linemen. Oliver is strong, quick, and has rare athletic ability, but his best trait might be the immense amount of energy he plays with. As a three year starter for Houston Oliver averaged nearly four tackles and two assists per game. He never put up flashy sack totals but he did make a considerable big play contribution. In 32 games with the Cougars, he had 13.5 sacks, forced five fumbles and recovered one. The NFL game and particularly the Bills aggressive scheme could bring out the best in Oliver. The retirement of Buffalo great Kyle Williams left a hole in the starting lineup for the rookie, so it could show up right away.
With Williams gone, Star Lotulelei is possibly the best candidate for the nose tackle position. It is a job he is familiar with having played there for much of his six years in the league. Lotulelei is an anchor versus the run and has the power to push the pocket as a pass rushers but he will be on the sideline in most passing situations.
Last year’s first-round pick Harrison Phillips figured heavily into the rotation as a rookie and should do so again in 2019. He is capable of lining up at either tackle position and could even push Lotulelei for the starting spot. Phillips is seen by many as a younger clone of Kyle Williams. He is both quick and athletic for a big man, with the size and strength to hold the point of attack versus the run, and the ability to contribute as a pass rusher. He did not make a big statistical splash in 2019 but was fairly productive on a per snap basis. On about 40% of the defensive snaps (391 plays), Harrison was 20-14-0 with a pair of fumble recoveries. The zero in the sack column is a glaring issue in terms of IDP value. We should not be overly critical about that considering Harrison was not on the field in most passing situations. Unless your league starts two tackles, Harrison is not roster-worthy entering the season. On the other hand, if he starts fast it is probably not a mirage.
Veterans Kyle Peko, Jordan Phillips and Robert Thomas will compete for the remaining roster spots. Phillips was the fourth tackle last season which could give him an edge. Buffalo may not keep more than four at the position since defensive tackles do not play much on special teams.
The Bills defensive ends accounted for 15 sacks between them in 2018. That is a number the coaching staff wants to have go up, but they will have to find a way using basically the same cast of characters. Jerry Hughes is the closest thing Buffalo has to a three-down defensive end. He played almost 70% of the snaps and managed to lead the team with seven sacks last season.
Hughes is a steady contributor on a year to year basis so we know what to expect from him. Since becoming a starter in 2012 he has averaged 32-14-6.5 with a career-best of 36-17-9.5 in 2014. He is productive enough to garner consideration as a low DL3 but week to week inconsistency could push him further down for some managers. In 2018 Hughes reached double-digit points six times (all in the first nine games), In the other 10 games, he averaged fewer than three and a half including a pair of goose eggs. With no real upside to his game, Hughes is a late/last round target at best.
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