The 2020 NFL Draft is finally in the books and Buffalo Bills fans have some clarity about what the overall roster may look like come September. After seven rounds and an undrafted free agent signing period, the Bills still have a handful of roster spots they’ll be giving away to mostly tryout-type guys as we get closer to training camp.
The one position group that has me the most intrigued is their defensive line construction.
I’ll start by saying I don’t believe the Bills have the league's best defensive line – it’s really pretty solid all around, but it may not even be featured in the top-five of NFL defensive lines. Having said that, they’re likely the most versatile in terms of position flexibility and overall player makeup in all of football.
Let’s start with some of their free agent signings:
Jefferson starts off our conversation because, well, he’s the benchmark of versatility. Listed as a defensive end in some places, a defensive tackle in others, and even just "DL" on a few websites, Jefferson is truly a Swiss Army knife and can do a lot for Bills defensive line coach Eric Washington and head coach Sean McDermott.
As of right now, I’d pencil in Jefferson at Jordan Phillips' old position as a rotation three-technique, which lines up on the outside shoulder of the offensive guards depending on the strength of the offensive set. We saw Phillips revive his career at the three-tech position, but is moving to a team in the Arizona Cardinals who run more tradition 3-4 sets and will likely find himself playing out of position. Not something you have to worry about with Jefferson, who has found success playing as a 4-3 defensive end and a defensive tackle.
I think you might even see Jefferson slot down to the one-technique (either outside shoulder of the center) on third down or obvious passing downs to bring that NASCAR package to life with Ed Oliver at the three-tech and Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes on the edges.
I see Addison as a remarkably similar player to Hughes. I think they win at the line of scrimmage in similar ways and think they’ve carved out a high-level pass rush specialist role for themselves that I think will bode well when you combine their efforts in 2020. He may not offer the scheme versatility as Jefferson does, but he’ll allow the Bills to reduce Hughes’ snap count without missing a beat on the edge. Let’s put this in the superior depth category and think about Hughes and Addison on opposing edges on third down.
Butler is the total wild card of the group. After three disappointing seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Butler saw himself perform at a career-best clip in his contract season, something any evaluator would look at with concern. Even more, I wonder where he ultimately fits along the defensive line. If they intend to slot him in at the three-tech, are they planning on carrying five defensive tackles this season? Because unlike Jefferson, I don’t believe you’ll have the luxury of bumping Butler outside to the edge. I think he’s a better fit as a five-technique, 3-4 defensive end per his 2019 jump in success.
So, for timing sake, we can move on from Butler as I don’t believe he plays a large role in the 2020 plans for McDermott.
No, Phillips wasn’t a recent free agent signing, but he kind of is? Before missing a majority of the 2019 season due to a knee injury, Phillips was poised to overtake Star Lotulelei as the starting one-technique in McDermott’s defense. Luckily, that ACL tear happened early in the season that he’ll be decently close to 100% when training camp opens. That means you have two solid interior defensive lineman up the middle for the foreseeable future, and as much as Bills fans love to pick on Lotulelei, he had himself a pretty solid 2019 campaign.
Let’s add in second round pick A.J. Epenesa to the rotation and talk about how this ultimately effects a top-five defense from last season.
I loved Shaq Lawson over the past two seasons. He was pound-for-pound the Bills' best edge run defender and made himself a nice chunk of change by putting together a really nice 2019 campaign. Having said that, Epenesa steps into the role Lawson has played the last two season, and I just think the Bills hit an absolute home run.
Is he a bendy, athletic edge defender that will score you double-digit sack seasons? Likely not, but what he represents is an upgrade at the left defensive end position in McDermott’s scheme. A position that asks you to be a more stay-at-home, edge-setting run defender while the other defensive end position – that’ll be manned by Hughes and Addison – acts as your “set them loose” edge pass rushers. The perfect ying to their yang. The best part of this is you could certainly see the Bills pushing Epenesa down to the three-technique on passing downs as that’s where most prognosticators believe he’ll be able to regularly win in pass rushing situations in the NFL.
Ultimately, now that the defensive line has essentially been re-tooled, I am left wondering where Trent Murphy fits into all of this. I personally don’t believe they’ll cut him or move on simply due to experience and depth concerns at the left defensive end position. I don’t see the Bills opting to go with second-year seventh round pick Darryl Johnson and Epenesa as their one-two punch, I’m just not buying it.
With that said, let’s play around with some lineups, shall we?
Murphy | Oliver | Phillips | Hughes
Epenesa | Jefferson | Lotulelei | Addison
Epenesa | Oliver | Phillips | Hughes
Murphy | Epenesa | Jefferson | Addison
My point here is good luck to opposing offensive coordinators looking to find matchups in the running game. The Bills can play to tailor their personnel packages based on the offensive style of the opposing offense. The Bills can have an equal amount of success rushing the passer in a pass heavy scheme as they can stopping the run against power running teams.
Although I believe the group is still missing a blue-chip pass rushing talent, Brandon Beane has done a tremendous job giving the Bills' defensive coaching staff a ton of options for the 2020 season.
I fully expect this defensive line to be notably better than the group that was here in 2019.