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NFL Draft Notebook: Defensive Ends

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The 2021 NFL Draft is coming, and the Buffalo Bills will be looking to add pieces that can push them over the top in the 2021 season. Each week, I will break down a different defensive position group, with some players that the Bills should target in the draft and why they would be a potential fit. Today, let’s examine the defensive end position.

It’s no secret that the Bills need to improve their pass rush. Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes are fine football players, but they’re not difference makers in the NFL. The biggest difference between the Bucs beating the Chiefs and the Bills losing to them was Tampa Bay’s ability to get after Patrick Mahomes with Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett. It’s possible the Bills upgrade the defensive end position through free agency by adding a veteran like J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Everson Griffen, or Ryan Kerrigan. There will be some intriguing younger talent available as well, though likely out of the Bills’ price range. 

If the Bills don’t add a pass rusher through free agency, the draft will offer some intriguing options. This is one of the weaker defensive end drafts I can remember, especially in terms of top end talent. High end pass rushing talents don’t usually last until pick #30 anyway, and with this draft being especially strong at wide receiver and offensive line, there will be some attractive young pass rushers available when the Bills are on the clock. 

Here are three defensive ends the Bills should consider. It’s unlikely the Bills move up in the draft, so I’m working under the assumption that Kwity Paye and Gregory Rousseau will be gone by pick 30. 

Jaelan Phillips, Miami (6’5”, 266 lbs)

Phillips is going to be one of the most debated prospects in the draft. On the one hand, he’s an absolute freak athletically and a terror off the edge. He has the kind of pass-rushing talent that usually gets selected in the top 10. On the other hand, he’s got a long injury history and even retired from football a few years ago for medical reasons. Phillips has suffered at least three concussions and one more could signal the end of his career. His medical evaluations and physicals will go a long way towards determining where Phillips gets drafted. 

Phillips brings prototypical size to the 4-3 DE position. A few years ago, Phillips was considered the #1 overall recruit by multiple recruiting services. Phillips would commit to UCLA, but after a myriad of injury issues, he retired from football after only two seasons. A few months later, Phillips had a change of heart and transferred to Miami. After sitting out the 2019 season, Phillips would star for the Hurricanes, producing eight sacks in 10 games. With good length, speed, and power, Phillips checks every box you want in a pass rusher. He’s also only played 20 collegiate games, so he’s relatively inexperienced. For as good as he is right now, his potential is vast, as he gets more reps under his belt. 

I think it’s a 50/50 proposition that Phillips is available at #30. If he’s there, he’s absolutely worth the risk. If he’s healthy, the Bills would have an absolute steal. It’s not out of the question that five years from now Phillips could be one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. He’s that good. 

Joe Tryon, Washington (6’5”, 262 lbs)

Tryon is another supreme edge rusher with a good, lean frame and tons of athletic upside. He exploded onto the scene in 2019 with a fantastic season. He recorded eight sacks and was named to the Pac-12’s All-Conference 2nd Team. Then Covid 19 hit, and the Pac 12 initially canceled their season. When they finally restarted the season, Tryon decided to opt out and prepare for the draft. Had he played and dominated in 2020, he almost certainly would have been a first-round pick. Now, he’s a bit of an unknown with tremendous upside. 

When I watch Tryon, I see an explosive athlete that can get around the edge consistently. He’s got a quick first step and uses his hands well to blow past most offensive tackles. He’s still a bit raw and with good professional coaching, he’s got the upside to be an elite NFL pass rusher. Tryon doesn’t yet have a full repertoire of pass-rushing moves, as he mainly relies on his speed to get around his opponents. He might be a bit of a project, especially as a run defender, but he could provide value as a pass-rushing specialist early in his career.

If the Bills fall in love with Tryon, it’s not out of the question that they could select him at 30. He’s too good to last to the end of the 2nd round, but if Buffalo is able to trade back and acquire some more picks, they could likely land Tryon in the early to mid 2nd round. 

Carlos Basham, Wake Forest (6’4”, 281 lbs)

There was a time when Basham was considered the top DE prospect in this class and a likely top 10 overall pick. He had a good 2020 season but not a dominant one. He’s been one of the more popular players getting mocked to the Bills in the first round, and I’m sure he’s a player that will get a serious look from Brandon Beane. 

Basham is a little different than the other prospects on this list. He’s very experienced and proven and the college level. He’s not long and lean but a bit more thick and powerful. He’s not an elite-level athlete but has a high IQ and motor. In short, he’s more of a finished product than Phillips or Tryon. Basham actually reminds me of last year’s 2nd round pick, A.J. Epenesa. Both were big, strong defensive ends with a well-rounded game. Epenesa dropped some weight to become a quicker pass rusher. I don’t see Basham dropping weight; in fact, I could see a team attempt to pack another 10-15 lbs on him and move him to a 3-tech. At the Senior Bowl, Basham was routinely moved inside on passing downs and he acquitted himself quite well as an interior rusher. 

The Bills will give Basham a look in round one. I suspect as we get closer to the draft, Basham is a guy more likely to fall down boards rather than rise up. This isn’t because he’s not a quality player because he is one of the safer picks in this draft. But we all know guys tend to shoot up draft boards after they destroy the combine with their electric speed and strength. Basham isn’t likely going to blow anyone away with his athleticism. I don’t think it’s out of the question that the Bills could have Basham fall in their laps at the end of the 2nd round. 

Hidden Gem: Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa (6’7”, 245 lbs)

Smith dominated FCS competition in 2019 to the tune of 14 sacks, among the top sack totals in the nation. He was forced to sit out the 2020 season as the FCS shifted their season to the Spring. He’s long, lean, and athletic, and tackles at his level of competition had no chance of keeping up with him. Smith is clearly a bit light at only 245 lbs, and I’m not sure he’s going to add too much weight at the next level because his frame is a bit slender. But there’s no denying his ability to get off the ball and get to the quarterback. 

Smith’s defensive line coach at Northern Iowa is a familiar name to Bills’ fans. Bryce Paup, former Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year for Buffalo in 1995, has been the Panthers’ defensive line coach since 2018. 

Elerson Smith could be an absolute steal on Day 3. 

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