Trent Murphy was an outsider. After playing three seasons for the Washington Football Team as a linebacker, Sean McDermott took a chance on the former Stanford Cardinal.
With a three-year, $21 million contract and a shift to defensive end, it looked like Murphy would have a fresh start in Orchard Park. But has he contributed enough to deserve a second contract on one of the best defensive units in the NFL?
After a grade three left ACL and PCL tear ended his time in Washington, McDermott took a chance on Murphy. In his first season with the Bills, Murphy started 10 games and recorded 24 tackles. His four sacks were tied for forth on the team with Jerry Hughes. It was not a terrible first year for Murphy.
Although in 2019, Murphy stepped up his game by starting all sixteen games. His tackle count increased to 36 and he recovered two fumbles. His sack count increased to five. And two of those came in the Wildcard game against Houston.
It seemed like Murphy left his durability concerns at the door. He earned every single start over Shaq Lawson, who is four years younger than Murphy. Murphy knew that he would be riding the bench if he did not take his game to the next level. With Lawson leaving to chase the cash in Miami, Murphy may have a step up in a system that he already knows over rookie A.J. Epenesa and others.
Mario Addison vs. Murphy
This offseason, McDermott signed former Carolina connection, Mario Addison, to a three-year contract. Will this be the writing on the wall for Murphy? In crunching the numbers, fans need to pump the breaks.
To start, Addison has only 34 more career tackles than Murphy in 40 career games (136 vs. 102), according to Pro Football Reference. Factor in his injury-lost season in 2017 and Murphy may have more tackles than Addison.
In addition, Murphy has more career sacks in the playoffs (2.0) than Addison does (1.0), even though Addison has appeared in five more playoff games. Murphy is also winning in the recovered fumbles department (7 vs. 4).
The Stats Don’t Lie
There is no denying that Murphy has not played up to his $21 million contract. His 19 solo tackles in 2019 were 60th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. And his five sacks were 58th in the league.
Defensive ends are usually high on the sack charts come season’s end. Four out of the last ten regular-season sack leaders were defensive ends (J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, and Jared Allen twice). The six others were linebackers, which was Murphy’s position in college before he transitioned to an edge rusher.
With these assumptions, Murphy’s technique should have been stronger. Watching Murphy on tape, he often takes a far angle and gets washed out of the play. Take the example below.
Although a fumble occurs on the play, look closely at Murphy’s angle of attack. Instead of forcing the right tackle towards the congested pocket, Murphy is pancaked in the endzone.
The only reason he forced the fumble was that Cousins held the ball for too long. This has plagued Cousins since he came into the league, as he leads all active quarterbacks with a 3.01 snap to release rate (ESPN.com). Murphy got lucky on this play, and it has been his kryptonite since coming to Buffalo.
Look back at some of his performances, and you can clearly see that Murphy does not help funnel the quarterback into trouble. Edge rushers are supposed to do two things: contain the edge and hit the quarterback. Murphy has struggled on both sides of the token.
Shaq Was Better
Edge rushers’ bread and butter is collecting sacks and paychecks. Seventeen years ago, the sack king ironically retired as a member of the Washington Football Team (Murphy’s former team). Bruce Smith finished his career with 171.0 sacks as a member of the Bills and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
With a reputation of a hard-hitting defense since the 1990s, you would think this would bring up talk-show and podcast gold about who deserves to start on the prestigious defensive line. Well, to put it lightly: Shaq Lawson should have started over Trent Murphy in 2019.
Highlighting the stats, Shaq bested Murphy in total sacks (6.5 vs 5.0), tackles for loss (13 vs 9) and quarterback hits (18 vs 9). Murphy won the total tackles (36 vs 32) and the forced fumbles battle (2 vs 0).
So, why did Lawson sit on the bench while Murphy started all 16 games in 2019? Maybe McDermott and Leslie Frazier thought that Murphy was more fit to start the defensive shift, as the two want fresh legs every series. Or was it Lawson’s temper and late hits that gave Murphy the advantage?
The fact of the matter is Lawson did more damage while he was in-between the hashes. He deserved every bit of the $30 million that Miami gave the star pass rusher, and it will be interesting to see if he succeeds in the sunshine state.
Murphy should have been the second option on the left defensive end rotation. But McDermott and Leslie Frazier saw otherwise.
Even with Shaq Lawson in Miami, Murphy should look in the rear-view mirror. There is a crowded defensive end competition brewing.
McDermott and Brandon Beane used their Carolina bloodline, adding Mario Addison and Bryan Cox Jr. to the mix. Addison was on McDermott’s 2016 defense that led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50. Addison had a strong year during the run with 9.5 sacks in fourteen games for Carolina. Cox has not seen enough time on the field to be considered a threat.
But, McDermott spearheads a defensive scheme that is similar to what he ran as Carolina’s defensive coordinator. They blitz heavy and have corners that can run the table with the strongest wide receivers in the NFL. Addison and Cox should be quick learners, which could push the envelope for Murphy.
Also, Buffalo used a second-round draft pick on A.J. Epenesa, the explosive pass rusher from Iowa. Projected as a late first-round pick, Epenesa fell into the Bills laps at 54. Many draft experts, including Mel Kiper Jr of ESPN had Epenesa going as early as the top five in his early mocks.
Even though his draft stock dropped after a lackluster NFL Combine, Epenesa balled out as an Iowa Hawkeye. The 6-5 rookie out of Glen Carbon, Illinois, had 27 sacks and 101 tackles in three years in the black and gold. The sack numbers may seem low, but Epenesa is playing with a chip on his shoulder that may hurt Murphy’s chances of starting.
“Growing up, I was taught to do the hard work behind the scenes and not have a showboat mentaility. When the time comes to shine out on the football field, I will be prepared,” Epenesa said after being drafted by the Bills in April’s draft.
With Jerry Hughes already solidified as the starting right defensive end, Murphy has a hound of hungry players looking to take his spot in the starting rotation. If he does not put in the work and improve his craft, he may be seeing more time on the bench.
Conclusion: No Second Contract or Possible 53-Man Roster Cut
Here is where the Bills can either show their hand or hold their cards. With Murphy being 29-years old, father time is catching up to the nine year vet. Paired with injuries and below-average statistics, it may be time for the Bills to cut Murphy loose.
Buffalo could save $8.025 million in cap room if they cut Murphy before the season begins, according to Spotrac. The extra cash can give Brandon Beane more money to put towards an extension for Tre’Davious White or Matt Milano.
For what it’s worth, the Murphy signing has not panned out the way Sean McDermott wanted it to. Sure, Murphy has brought a veteran-style leadership that many people see as a big reason why McDermott brought him to Orchard Park.
However, McDermott wants youth on his defense. He has found success so far in Tremaine Edmunds, White, and Ed Oliver, and he wants to continue the trend.
I see Murphy as a roster trim before the season begins, much like what others in Buffalo have said. But if Murphy hangs around and does not have a breakout season in 2020, I could easily see McDermott letting him walk.