After looking at the three players most capable off making the Bills’ offense better than expected, we’ll be turning our focus to the other side of the ball. The Bills’ defense looked very opportunistic in 2017, ranking 6th in the league with 18 interceptions, and they also avoided giving up big plays, especially in the air, allowing only three passes for more than 40 yards all season long, the fewest in the NFL. Other than that, the unit has room for improvement in several areas, shown by some shaky rankings, including 26th in yards allowed (355.1 YPG), 29th in rushing yards allowed, and 30th in first downs allowed. I believe there are three players in particular who have the potential to help this defense take the next step and become a top-10 group this season. By order of least to greatest importance, here they are:
No.3: DE Trent Murphy
The Bills’ defense is very strong against the pass when it is able to pressure the opposing quarterbacks. Their problem in 2017 was that they couldn’t do it consistently in 2017. They ranked 31st in the league in sacks per pass attempt, with only Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams as true threats rushing the passer. After rebuilding the entire secondary a year ago, HC Sean McDermott did the same on the defensive line this year, with Trent Murphy expected to be a terror playing opposite Hughes. The former Redskin is coming from an injury-plagued season but had his career year in 2016, recording 9 sacks and 3 forced fumbles playing behind Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. If the talented former 2nd round pick can replicate this type of production, or even step it up playing in a more prominent role, the Bills surely will improve rushing the passer and capitalize on more turnover opportunities.
No.2: LB Tremaine Edmunds
The 1st round pick out of Virginia Tech is going to be a centerpiece in the Bills’ defense, and if he can quickly produce at his potential level, then look out Bills fans. Edmunds is the total package, and the Bills haven’t had anything like him in a long time (looking at you, prime Takeo Spikes). Preston Brown was a solid Mike linebacker, sound tackler, and was smart on defensive adjustments, but he was often challenged and exploited because of his lack of athleticism. Edmunds has the opportunity to shine in his role and become the Luke Kuechly of the Bills’ defense. If it happens sooner than later, the impact would be striking.
No.1: DT Star Lotulelei
The former Panther signed a 5-year, $50 million deal to become the highest-paid player on the Bills’ roster, and it’s easy to see why GM Brandon Beane and HC Sean McDermott identified him as a key piece for this defense. The powerful run-stuffer has the ability to occupy double teams and keep the linebackers clean from blockers. His presence is essential to make this defense good against the run, but that’s not all he can do. Rushing the passer, he has the ability to push the pocket and attract double teams. That’s very important because it gives Kyle Williams, Trent Murphy, and especially Jerry Hughes more one-on-one opportunities, and that can make all the difference in turning this defensive line into a successful one. If Lotulelei produces what is expected of him, this Bills defense is going to take a huge step in the right direction in 2018.