The Buffalo Bills’ defense was once again one of the best units in all of football in 2022, despite the frustrating finish in the two postseason games. The group allowed the sixth-fewest yards per game at 319.1, and the second-fewest points per game, at 17.9. They were third in Football Outsider’s DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) Run Defense rankings with a score of -19.7% and fourth overall with a cumulative score of -11%. Buffalo allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game at 104.6.
The Bills’ defense could have a lot of moving parts this offseason, including shuffling around the interior defensive line (IDL). We believe Tim Settle and DaQuan Jones will man two of the spots as they are signed through 2023. So is Ed Oliver, but there is a lot of fan chatter about possibly trading the Houston Product, and Jordan Phillips is a free agent.
For this exercise, we will look at a former top-ten pick Oliver, in-house free agent Phillips, high-level free agent Dalvin Tomlinson, and low-level free agent Solomon Thomas. Those four players will give us a wide array of production vs. contract to dissect as we head to our final verdict of PROMOTE vs. PAY in for IDL on the Bills’ defense.
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Oliver played 640 snaps for the Bills in 2022, with nine coming on special teams. He was on the field for 50.14% of defensive snaps, the second highest rate among IDL only behind DaQuan Jones. Phillips took 369 snaps for the Bills last year. Seven were in the box and three on special teams, besides those ten, the rest were along the line. He saw the field for one-third of the Bills’ defensive plays, but those numbers would have been higher should he have not missed six games. Thomas took the field 445 times for the Jets, missing week 10 in the process. He also lined up for 33% of the defensive snaps and was on the field 71 times for special teams. Tomlinson lined up 645 times for Minnesota in 2022 while missing five weeks in the middle of the season. He took 45 snaps on special teams and played 62% of defensive snaps.
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Ed Oliver finished with 34 tackles, 2.5 sacks, nine tackles for a loss, and 14 hits. His 14 hits were 8th best among IDL in 2022. His missed tackle rate of just 5.9%, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), was also 8th in the NFL last season for IDLs with at least 50% of team snaps. Phillips ended 2022 with 20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss, and six hits. His 24.1% missed tackle rate was one of the worst among defensive linemen, per PFF. Thomas had 26 tackles, .5 sacks, two tackles for a loss, and four hits. He also sported a miss tackle rate of 8.0%. Tomlinson racked up 42 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss, ten hits, and a 12.8% missed tackle rate.
Let’s peel back the layers of advanced stats for these four starting with Pro Football Reference’s system they call “AV” which stands for “approximate value” (“this is our attempt to put a single number on each player season since 1960 so that we can (very approximately) compare across years and positions”). Here, they grade Oliver a 7, Phillips a 2, Thomas a one, and Tomlinson a six.
Flipping back to PFF, Oliver earned a 67.5 overall defensive grade which brings him in at 43rd for IDL. His 65.0 in run defense moves him up to 35th, and his 59.9 in tackle is 37th. Phillips ranks outside the top 100 in defense with a grade of 50.0. He moves up to 80th in run defense grading out at 53.5, and second worst overall in tackle at 27.7. Looking outside of Buffalo, Thomas has a 49.9 in defense, which slots him right behind Phillips. He comes in at 105th in run defense with a 48.7 but does move up the rankings in tackle with a 57.5, which comes in at 47th. Tomlinson is loved by the grades compared to the other three. His 77.0 in overall defense is 14th. He tied Oliver in run defense with 65.0 and 44.1 slots at 97th in tackle. One place we saw a significant difference in the grades for these four players was pass rush. Tomlinson’s 77.6 is 14th, none of the other three were in the top 50.
To open up the contract talk, we will start with the guys who have a “market value” on Spotrac.com. They give Oliver a value of $10.4M, which lines up right with his 5th-year option of $10.75M. They have him signing a four-year, $42M deal after this year. Over The Cap gives the 31-year-old Phillips a valuation of $1.85M after having a cap hit of $3.6M in 2022. Sticking with Over The Cap’s valuation chart for Thomas (Spotrac doesn’t have a market value for either Phillips or Thomas) he sits at $1.35M after having a cap hit of $2.25M for the Jets last year. Switching back to Market Value, Tomlinson is in line for $8.5M on a three-year deal.
I’m going to start my verdict with this qualifier each and every time… We all know the Bills aren’t flush with cash entering 2023. Even if they pull out most of their “cap coupons” (as our cap guru, Greg Tompsett, calls contract restructures), they are still looking at $40M to $50M to work with before signing or drafting anyone. That said, we know the Bills need some help at IDL outside of the production they received from DaQuan Jones last season.
Oliver has some nice stats and has certainly flashed, but if all the suggestions the Bills could get a 2nd and 5th-round pick for him were true, I think Brandon Beane should take it. If they could use those draft assets to attack other spots they need help (OL/WR) and then sign a guy like Tomlinson it would be a double win. I also like the idea of bringing in a guy like Thomas, who is certainly a rotation-level replacement and could come relatively cheap. I don’t need Phillips back. The vibes were fun from years past, but living off of the feasting gif from Thanksgiving against Dallas only lasted so long.