Coming into the 2020 season, the Buffalo Bills had one of the highest-paid Defensive Line groups amongst the entire league. Comparing that compensation with production, the scales tipped more towards the money bag rather than the stat sheet. Players like Trent Murphy, Vernon Butler Jr, Quinton Jefferson, and maybe even Mario Addison all under-performed relative to their contracts. That being said, the absence of Star Lotulelei shook up the plans on the 2020 Buffalo Bills Defensive Line.
The 2021 Buffalo Bills Defensive Line should have fans feeling like the team is starting on a clean slate. Despite only shuffling some players here and there around, it feels like things will be different this year. Hopefully, they will be! Making some minor subtractions and adding a couple of rookies can make a big difference. Only time will tell, but I think the balancing act will lean more towards production rather than compensation this year.
Buffalo Bills on Rookie contracts
As we all know by now, the Buffalo Bills drafted Edge Rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham with back-to-back picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. After a disappointing year when it came to rushing the passer, Brandon Beane didn’t feel shy about addressing that weakness. If you’re unfamiliar with either Rousseau or Basham‘s game, you can check our Film Session on both rookies linked above. After breaking down the film on both players, I think both are capable of contributing meaningful snaps and production this year. However, since Sean McDermott likes to utilize a DL rotation, both could see their snap shares hover around 25% for the season.
In addition to Rousseau and Basham, the Buffalo Bills still have plenty of Defensive Linemen on rookie (cost controlled) contracts. For instance, the Bills are still waiting for breakout seasons from Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips. Both Oliver and Phillips seem primed for great seasons respectively, but for different reasons. Phillips is entering his second year after his most recent ACL injury. Therefore, he could finally feel a level of comfort from a physical standpoint to match his level of mental maturity. As for Oliver, with Star Lotulelei coming back to play the 1-Tech role, he could see a lot more one-on-ones.
Lastly, we’ve heard a lot about the offseason that A.J. Epenesa has had. Although he struggled out of the gate, Epenesa really found a level of comfort and understanding at the tail end of last season. If he takes the next step that people believe he’s primed to make, this Bills Defensive Line could be dangerous. Furthermore, I named five significant players above that are on rookie contracts. There is a real opportunity here for the Bills to get a solid return on investment from this specific group of players.
Turning the Page
The most difficult thing about the youth movement on the Defensive Line is what the Bills will have to sacrifice. Outside of Buffalo, people are pretty indifferent about Jerry Hughes. Those of us that have watched him for the last eight years understand how productive he has been for the Bills. I feel as though most of us have a soft spot for Jerry Hughes considering the teams he has been a part of. With that being said, this is the last year on his contract.
Given the recent selections of Epenesa, Rousseau, and Basham, it doesn’t look great for Hughes in terms of future employment with the Buffalo Bills after 2021. If these three young guys are still behind schedule after this year, that would certainly give Hughes more leverage. However, there’s a lot of time between now and then. For what it’s worth, I hope Hughes is willing to come back in 2022 on a relatively cheap deal one-year deal to provide that veteran leadership.
Air Raid Hour Recap
I only covered a specific sub-section of the Defensive Line talk above. If you want a deep dive into the position group, the Air Raid Hour has you covered. Judge and Tilt begin the show touching on the news and notes around the league and then hop into a little bit of Madden bad-mouthing. After that, they break down the updates from One Bills Drive as minicamp wraps up. Last, but not least, they continue the matchup preview series with the Week 9 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. If you missed it and want to check it out, the replay is linked and embedded above.
As always, go Bills!