With all the craziness in the world, it is a little tough to get focused on the upcoming football season. For that matter, we are not yet 100% sure there will be a football season. Fortunately, it is looking more and more like there will be in some form or fashion. With hope and expectation that we will soon return to some form of normalcy, the time has come to start thinking about some of the less vital things that bring us enjoyment.
Welcome back for year 26 of the Eyes of the Guru column. This time around we will start in the AFC East. For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop after their rookie seasons.
In many aspects, the Bills got good production from their defensive line last year. As a unit, the front-four accounted for 35 sacks, 142 tackles, and 5 turnovers. That was not enough to stop the organization from making a lot of changes. Buffalo allowed tackle Jordan Phillips to sign elsewhere despite leading the team with 9.5 sacks in 2019. This likely had more to do with money than a lack of desire to retain him. They also lost defensive end Shaq Lawson who was second on the team with 6.5 sacks. While those are significant losses, the additions should more than make up for it.
As many as five players could figure prominently into the Bills interior rotation. The team is counting on last year’s first-round pick Ed Oliver to replace the production of Phillips. Oliver had a strong rookie season with 24 tackles, 19 assists, 5 sacks, and a forced fumble. He is a quick and athletic three-technique tackle who holds up well against the run while counting pass rush among his strengths. This versatility allowed him to stay on the field for nearly 60% of the defensive snaps last year. For IDP managers, Oliver has the potential to explode in his second season and become a top-five interior lineman. At worst he should equal last season’s totals.
It is unclear at this early stage, who will start at the other tackle spot. Star Lotulelei was part of the three-man rotation last season and is a good fit at the nose tackle position. He is a two-down anchor versus the run but does not have much to offer as a pass rusher. Third-year man, Harrison Phillips, was set for a big role in 2019 when he was lost to a knee injury in week three. He too is probably best as a rotational early-down contributor if healthy.
The most interesting addition inside from a fantasy perspective is former Panthers first-round pick Vernon Butler. Checking in at 330 pounds, he has the size to play the nose tackle position, but Butler’s six sacks for Carolina last year suggest he play at either position. He was drafted in 2016 but did not land a starting job with the Panthers until Kwann Short was injured in early October. Butler took advantage of the opportunity with 21 tackles, 11 assists, 6 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles, which was enough to land him a nice free-agent payday. It would not be a surprise to see Butler paired with Oliver on a lot of passing downs.
The Bills also added versatile former Seahawk Quinton Jefferson. He is seen mostly as a tackle but has played outside on early downs at times over the last two seasons. Jefferson is a long shot for a starting role but could poach enough snaps to have a detrimental effect on everyone else not named Oliver.
While the team would be happy to get similar production from the tackle positions, there are higher expectations from this year’s group of edge defenders. Shaq Lawson was a steady contributor over his four years with the team but it became evident he would never reach the expectations of a former first-round pick. The Bills used both free agency and the draft to address the job opening.
Former Panther Mario Addison is sure to step in at one of the starting positions. With at least six sacks in every season since 2014 and 24.5 over the last three years, he should be a considerable upgrade for the pass rush. Addison projects to be a good fit in Leslie Frazier’s scheme, where defensive ends play aggressively. He gets after the quarterback but marginal tackle totals have kept Addison short on fantasy value throughout his nine-year career. Looking at the numbers of other Buffalo pass rushers in recent years, Addison may be hard-pressed to exceed his career-best of 27 solos and 17 assists from 2017.
The Bills were without a first-round pick this spring. They used their second on E.J. Epenesa. Scouting reports on the former Iowa star point out that he is not particularly fast or quick off the edge and has room to improve versus the run, but is savvy and has been exceptionally productive, racking up 22 sacks as a two-year starter for the Hawkeyes. The rookie will have an opportunity to contribute immediately as a sub-package specialist, but it may be a while before he can develop into a three-down player or fantasy factor. In short, Epenesa is a good taxi squad candidate for dynasty managers but we should not expect big things right away.
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