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Reading the Rooms (2022): Buffalo Bills DL

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Continuing with our summer series, let’s look at the Buffalo Bills defensive line. Although this unit played a big part in the NFL’s number one defense (in total yards and points allowed), the Bills needed to make some upgrades in the trenches.

There was a complete overhaul up front, including two new projected starters and other key contributors who joined the fray in free agency. How much better did Brandon Beane make this group this offseason? If I had to pick, this may be the Bills’ most improved unit on the team.

Projected Depth Chart

LDEGreg RousseauBoogie BashamShaq LawsonKingsley Jonathan
LDTEd OliverJordan PhillipsBrandin BryantPrince Emili
RDTDaQuan JonesTim SettleEli AnkouC.J. Brewer
RDEVon MillerA.J. EpenesaMike LoveDaniel Joseph

Von Miller

Let’s start with the big fish. It’s really not hyperbole to say the two-time Super Bowl champion is the biggest free agent signing in Buffalo Bills history. Miller may be entering his age-33 season, but he’s coming off a year where he had 9.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss (TFLs), and 17 quarterback hits. He really turned up the heat in the postseason, recording at least one sack in three of the Los Angeles Rams’ four postseason games.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking what many are: how will he do without Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd alongside him? I think we should give the Super Bowl 50 MVP more credit than that though.

Those 19 TFLs tied for second-most in Miller’s career. (And he only played 15 games for Denver and LA.) Furthermore, 2021 was Miller’s third-straight season with 30 or more pressures and his ninth season recording at least eight sacks.

As much as the move was a fit in terms of team need (to replace Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison), I believe Miller’s experience and leadership will be most important in Orchard Park. Especially because, as much as he should help fill Hughes’ role at the weakside end on the field, Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier should not be looking to deploy Miller as he has been throughout his career.

Miller has played 900+ snaps in a season three times (2012, 2014, 2016) and 800+ four times (2015, 2017-19). His lowest snap totals came in an injury-plagued 2013 (539 snaps in nine games) and 2021 (764 in 15 games). Limiting the vet as he enters his 12th NFL season is important and it’ll allow him to be more efficient. The plan should be to boost the team’s pressure rate on passing downs and keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Again, Miller’s presence alone is key here, as he looks to take some of the young d-linemen under his wing, as DeMarcus Ware did with him back in Denver.

Ed Oliver

The Houston native has lived up to the billing of a first-round pick, becoming one of the best young defensive tackles in the game. While he’s not Donald, Oliver’s strength and quickness allow him to disrupt offensive lines all over the league. In 2021, the third-year pro posted career-highs in solo tackles (29), TFLs (10), QB hits (14), pressures (18), and QB knockdowns (9).

His analytics were strong too, as he earned another career-best with a 70.9 PFF grade last year. Also, his 22 tackles for loss/no gain tied with Cameron Heyward for second-most in the league since 2020 (per PFF). Beyond his play, Oliver has also become one of the true leaders on this team.

Now, the question will be whether or not he can take the next leap. Oliver has improved in each of his first three NFL seasons. Considering the talent he has around him now, there’s no telling how much further he can go.

DaQuan Jones

One of the most underrated signings in the 2022 offseason, Jones will give Oliver a strong running mate at 1-tech. He was not at his best during his lone season with the Carolina Panthers, but he was still a big piece for the NFL’s second-ranked defense in yards allowed.

Jones did improve his prowess in the passing game, as he posted 13 pressures in 641 snaps, the most he’s totaled over the past four seasons. He also tied a career-high with six QB hits for the second-straight season and set another career-high with seven stuffs (TFLs and tackles for no gain). He may not be a superstar, but the Penn State product has been a more-than-capable nose tackle in his career, posting four seasons with a PFF grade of 70 or higher.

Jones will be able to handle the dirty work that most noses do. He’s done it for years, especially against the Buffalo Bills both with the Tennessee Titans and even last year with Carolina. (He had a season-high five tackles in Week 15 in Orchard Park.) But what’s exciting is knowing he’ll be able to plug the holes that teams exploited against a leaner Bills d-line in 2021.

The nine-year pro’s status as a run stuffer will be crucial with backs like his former teammate Derrick Henry, Najee Harris, Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Joe Mixon on the schedule.

Gregory Rousseau

Groot should truly be pleased with what he put on tape in 2021. But he should not be satisfied just yet.

Even at 21 years old, he was sixth among all rookies with 24 total pressures, to go along with 50 total tackles, 10 QB hits, and eight TFLs. The former high school wideout and DB (wild) is a freak athlete. He also showed he is disciplined enough to rely on technique just as much as skill.

His 70.2 PFF grade showed he belongs at this level. But he’s another player that has another level to reach. Even with his inexperience at edge rusher, he’s got nowhere to go but up.

PFF College on Twitter: “Most defensive stops among rookie DL this season🥇 Gregory Rousseau: 41🥈 Azeez Ojulari: 30🥉 Christian Barmore: 25 pic.twitter.com/3QDlizS8rG / Twitter”

Most defensive stops among rookie DL this season🥇 Gregory Rousseau: 41🥈 Azeez Ojulari: 30🥉 Christian Barmore: 25 pic.twitter.com/3QDlizS8rG

Rousseau could be the next great Buffalo Bills edge rusher, following the likes of Mario Williams, Aaron Schobel, Phil Hansen, and even Bruce Smith. As raw as the former Hurricane appeared to be coming in, what can solidify the former Hurricane’s staying power is if he can reach the 10-sack range throughout his career.

Who’s to say 2022 is too early for that?

Boogie Basham

Another second-year player with a world of upside, Basham did not have as great of a rookie season as Rousseau; he was only active in two of his first eight games. But, once he got on the field, the Wake Forest product showed flashes of potential.

Basham had 1.5 sacks in his first two outings against the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. He played in eight of the Buffalo Bills’ final 11 games as well, including the postseason. (He recorded a sack and three tackles in the shellacking of the New England Patriots.)

I think the biggest thing is getting the 24-year old in good shape. He looked leaner during OTAs and minicamp sessions. So, the hope is that he can carry this over into training camp. Basham has always been a talented player on the field. However, he’s got to show his talent isn’t being held back by his work ethic; something that dates back to his time as a Demon Deacon.

Shaq Lawson

After a two-year stint away, with the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Houston Texans, Lawson made (in my opinion) the best move he could have ever done by coming back to Buffalo. While he left as a former first-round pick who may not have live up to all the hype, he comes home as a key reserve player with five seasons of experience in the McDermott-Frazier defense.

Lawson had an off year in 2021, but I can attribute that to playing on one of the worst defenses in the NFL with the Jets. For context, the Jets ranked 32nd in the league in total points, yards, first downs, and rushing touchdowns allowed on D. 

The hope has to be that limited snaps will allow the Clemson product to get back to 2020 form. That lone season in Miami saw Lawson record 14 QB knockdowns, four sacks, 25 total pressures, and tie a career-best 18 QB hits as he garnered a 70.9 overall rating — the second 70-plus rating in his career. He was also a part of the sixth-overall ranked Dolphins D. 

The crazy thing about Lawson is he could have a lot more longevity left to his career than you’d realize. Lawson (28) is young enough where he could have a spike in production in the back end of his career. But he’s also far enough into his career that coaches know what he can bring in his role as a rotational piece. 

Shaq the first-round pick? Maybe that’s not too exciting. Shaq the depth piece on the edge? That should sound more fruitful to Buffalo Bills fans. 

Jordan Phillips 

Another feel-good homecoming story, the 6’6” Phillips is back in Orchard Park, where he spent two seasons (2018 and 2019). While coming back to a squad he helped make the playoffs is a big deal, the nine-year pro’s best season came with the Bills in 2019 as he posted 9.5 sacks. 

Things may not have worked out for Phillips in Arizona after landing a three year, $30 million deal but, like Lawson, coming back to Buffalo may have been his best bet. Especially as a chess piece type.

Phillips can play either DT spot, but he can also move to the end spot on third downs if need be. Think about a lineup with Jones at Nose, Phillips at a head-up end, and Miller as another rush end. Sheesh. 

Regardless, a quality piece like Phillips just adds to what the Buffalo Bills have in the trenches. And with that quality of depth, it’s hard not to consider this the deepest d-line in football. 

A.J. Epenesa 

The former Iowa Hawkeye looked like a sure-fire top-5 pick while in Iowa City. But things have not gotten to that point yet for Epenesa, as he is still searching for his identity in the NFL. 

There have been good moments for sure. I always look back to how he helped dominate the Dolphins o-line and close the game out in the Buffalo Bills’ Week 2 shutout win. He, of course, knocked Tua Tagovailoa out of that game, but it was all off of a great pass-rush rep.

But the 23-year old has not been able to put moments like those together consistently. That’s what made the addition of Miller so vital; there were no other proven commodities on the edge outside of Rousseau. As much as Rousseau and Basham will be learning from the two-time Super Bowl champ, Epenesa should also look to gain as much knowledge as he can from Miller. 

I think Epenesa can also continue to add to his frame too. He played a lot of strong-side end at Iowa, but his frame now may be hindering him in the NFL. 

The third-year pro has tools to work with and can contribute well. The question is will he be a career rotational player or is he a long-term starter?

Tim Settle

The craziest part about the relatively unknown Settle is he may end up being the team’s most coveted reserve DT. Following a theme of several Bills free agent signings, 2021 was not the Virginia Tech product’s best in the league, but he’s shown he can produce in the past, even in a rotation.

Being stuck behind Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne did not help Settle whatsoever. But he was part of Washington’s stellar 2020 defense that finished top-five in various categories. That year, Settle had five sacks, 10 pressures, seven QB hits, and five TFLs on 347 snaps (all career-highs).

In fact, from 2019 to 2020, Settle’s pressure numbers stand out, considering he was a rotational piece. Over 661 snaps, the four-year pro had 17 pressures, seven sacks, and 12 QB hits from the interior. Again, not a superstar player by any stretch, but Settle may be in a position to reach a new peak with a deep cast of d-linemen around him and he enters his age-24 season.

If the 2020 season showed anything about Settle, it’s that he can thrive when he has some star power around him. And, with the potential for a bigger role in Buffalo, maybe he takes the next step as a starting-level DT.

The Rest

Seeing how deep the Buffalo Bills d-line is at this point, this group may not see much of the field in 2022. Ankou got 91 snaps on D with the team last year. Bryant has totaled 39 defensive snaps while playing in Buffalo. Meanwhile, Love has 83 career snaps since 2018. Jonathan, Emili, Brewer, and Joseph (all undrafted free agent signings) could look to make the roster as practice squad players.

This room is so cramped it leaves little wiggle room for who the team may keep on the practice squad.

Questions

  • How many d-linemen should the Bills keep on the active roster?
  • How many snaps will Von Miller play? What will his sack total be?
  • Will Greg Rousseau take the next step or will he have a sophomore slump?
  • Will Ed Oliver breakthrough as a true elite DT?
  • Can Boogie Basham or A.J. Epenesa be vital contributors?
  • What will Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips’ roles be?
  • Will DaQuan Jones return to his Tennessee form?
  • Will Tim Settle become a future starter in the interior?
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