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The only bad thing that can be said about the Buffalo defense in 2021 is that the 19 rushing touchdowns they allowed ranked 26th. Even that is not bad when we consider the twelve scores they gave up through the air were five fewer than any other team. Overall, the Bills were good versus the rush, finishing 13th in yards and 10th in yards per carry. The pass defense, on the other hand, was dominant. They were not simply first in yards allowed, they were first by 410 yards. They weren’t just first in completion percentage, they were first by 3.3%. The list goes on, number one in yards per attempt by a wide margin, number one in completions allowed. Buffalo was even tied for third with 19 interceptions, tied for third with 30 total takeaways, and put up a strong 42 sacks.
After a performance like that, most teams would concentrate on keeping the band together and make as few changes as possible. Not this team though. They drafted a corner in the first round, added a potential future starter at linebacker in the third, used free agency to make wholesale changes at defensive tackle, and signed a future Hall of Fame pass rusher.
The 42 sacks recorded by Buffalo was a total team effort with 16 players contributing. Mario Addison led the club with seven while no one else had more than four. This has been a theme for the Bills in recent years. The last Buffalo player to reach double-digit sacks was Lorenzo Alexander in 2016 and he was a strong side linebacker in a 4-3 (more on that later). The last defensive lineman to do it was Mario Williams in 2013.
One of the main reasons this team had no pass rusher with big numbers in 2021, is that they rotated soo many guys. In all, ten defensive linemen played at least 245 snaps, including six defensive ends. There is nothing wrong with a team effort but there are two young edge defenders on this defense that the organization believes can be special.
The Bills selected Gregory Rosseau in the first round of last year’s draft then came back to get Carlos Basham Jr in the second. Rosseau started for most of the season and was one of three defensive ends to see action on at least 540 plays. The other two, Addison and Jerry Hughes, are gone, as is Efe Obada who played 272 snaps. That leaves about 1430 more opportunities to be divided between Rosseau, Basham, 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa and free agent addition Shaq Lawson who is back after spending the last two years with the Dolphins and Jets. And no, I am not forgetting about or overlooking Von Miller here.
We know that Rosseau is going to be one of the starters. I expect the other spot will be heavily contested between Basham, Epenesa, and Lawson but regardless of who starts, all four of them will see significant action. Maybe even enough to have some IDP relevance.
There is plenty of reason for both the Bills and IDP managers to be excited about these young edge defenders. Rousseau did not make a huge impact in the sack column as a rookie but he managed to tie for second on the team with four. He was also fifth among the league’s defensive linemen with 41 solo tackles and ranked 21st overall from the IDP perspective. Those points are fairly impressive for a rookie playing fewer than 600 snaps.
Going into last year’s draft, Rosseau had a small body of work to study. He had one phenomenal season at Miami, but that amounted to his entire college career. In 2019 Rousseau played in all 13 games, starting seven, and exploded in the box scores. His 54 combined tackles were strong and he accounted for three turnovers, while his 15.5 sacks were second in the nation to Chase Young. Rosseau elected to opt out of the 2020 season and declared for the draft instead of returning to Miami in 2021. Judging by his performance as a rookie, the big numbers while at Miami were not a fluke. At 22 years old, his best is still to come as this young man has a long and bright future in the NFL.
Basham did not have the measurable traits and natural talent of his fellow rookie last year, but he was considered more polished and had a much more proven track record. At 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, Basham relies on leverage, technical expertise, and an arsenal of moves and countermoves over pure physical ability. One other asset he brings to the field is the ability to slide inside on passing downs.
Basham played 245 snaps over ten games as a rookie. His numbers were not bad for the limited opportunity at 11-8-2.5, and he showed the organization enough to move him up the food chain in year two. How far up the food chain is yet to be determined, but I like his chances of landing the starting job opposite Rosseau and making at least some IDP splash this year.
Some have Shaq Lawson penciled in as the starter opposite Rosseau. Lawsons opened his career as a first-round pick of the Bills in 2016 but never lived up to his draft status. He was a starter for much of his four seasons there, totaling 16.5 sacks with a career-high of 6.5 in 2019. A mediocre season with Miami in 2020 and a disappointing year with the Jets in 2021, confirm that he is no more than a marginal NFL starter on a team that is far from marginal. The Bills know exactly what they have in Lawson so I doubt they would have expectations for him beyond solid veteran depth.
A.J. Epenesa factored into the mix last year and should do so again in 2022 but could be the fourth man in the pecking order for playing time. He had two years to impress the organization. After the first one, the team drafted Rosseau and Basham, which was not a rousing vote of confidence. Over his two seasons as a pro, Epenesa has seen action on 737 plays recording 19 tackles, 9 assists, and 2 sacks. He was 7-5-.5 last year despite playing 130 more snaps than Basham.
Harrison Phillips, Star Lotulelei, and Vernon Butler are out, leaving Ed Olivers as the only returning piece of what was a pretty strong interior rotation last year. The 2019 first-round pick has been a mainstay in Buffalo’s lineup since joining the team and has been a steady contributor both on the field and on the stat sheet. As the 3-technique tackle, Oliver has averaged 26-15-4, a turnover, and 3 batted passes over three seasons. While those are not big numbers, they have been enough to make him roster-worthy as a low DT2 or solid DT3. He ranked 21st among tackles at the end of last season.
This year’s version of the Bills will feature DaQuan Jones, Jordan Phillips, and Tim Settle as the rest of the rotation. Jones and Phillips are both north of 320 pounds (Phillips is way north) and will likely rotate at the 1-technique with Settle probably spelling Oliver. All of these guys are good veteran players that will fill the positions well but there is nothing here for IDP managers to get excited about. One interesting side note though; Phillips had a big year with the Bills in 2019 when he was 25-6-9.5 and forced two fumbles. That got him a big payday with the Cardinals in 2020 but Phillips has no more than 15 solo stops or 3 sacks in any of his other six seasons.
- DT Ed Oliver – Decent DT2 with limited upside
- DT DaQuan Jones – Potential depth in leagues starting two tackles
- DT Jordan Phillips – No impact
- DT Tim Settle – No impact
- DE Greg Rousseau – Potential breakout player with DL2 floor
- DE Carlos Basham Jr – Sleeper with mid-DL2 upside
- DE Shaq Lawson – No impact
- DE A.J. Epenesa – No impact expected
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